ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Do trustees have full freedom of speech?

Inside Higher Ed
November 6, 2019 by Madeline St. Amour

Some students and faculty members at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey were outraged when they learned that one of the college’s trustees attended a straight pride parade in Boston in August.

Felecia Nace, a former teacher turned consultant who wrote a book critical of exposing children to LGBTQ topics and banning religion in schools, criticized the movement to teach gay literature and history in schools in a speech during the parade, which was grand marshaled by the far-right's Milo Yiannopoulos. She is also listed as an education adviser on the website for the parade's host organization, Super Happy Fun America. Faculty members and students have called for her resignation or removal from the position of trustee at board meetings, saying that Nace doesn’t represent the college’s commitment to diversity, according to reports in My Central Jersey.

The issue is now at a standstill, as the Somerset County government board, which appointed Nace to the college board, is still considering the issue and doesn't meet again until Nov. 12. Nace refuses to resign. Meanwhile, supporters of Nace are also attending meetings and arguing that this is a free speech issue.

“RVCC has made a distinct commitment to provide a welcoming campus to all, embracing diversity of all kinds,” said Donna Stolzer, director of media relations at the college, in a statement. “Diversity and inclusion are core values of the college.”

This isn’t the first time a board member of a college has faced scrutiny for controversial statements. In 2014 an anti-LGBTQ activist won a seat on the Houston Community College board and asked the college not to participate in the gay pride parade; an Ursinus College trustee came under fire for insulting tweets in 2016; and the University of Southern California's board has recently weathered a period of scandal.

It's a difficult issue to grapple with, said J. Noah Brown, president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees.

“People do have a constitutional right to free speech and free expression,” Brown said, but he added that “it’s always good to be mindful that you can’t always divorce those statements and actions from the fact you are a recognized individual in a leadership role.”

Brown believes that trustees should avoid situations where, just by participating, they may be dragging the college they represent into an unrelated issue.

Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, said that censoring or punishing speech is a “slippery slope.”

“The remedy for speech that is deemed hateful is more speech,” Poliakoff said, citing a 2018 book by Nadine Strossen, Hate: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship and the 1915 Declaration of Principles by the American Association of University Professors.

To maintain academic freedom, he said, everyone should be free to weigh in on the issue. That includes students and faculty, and in Raritan Valley’s situation, other trustees who may disagree with Nace. But just because most of the board might not agree with Nace, that doesn’t mean she deserves punishment, Poliakoff said.

Censoring or punishing trustees could lead to people feeling silenced, he said. It also has “no real educative value,” whereas fostering more conversation could.

“It’s much healthier to get these things out in the open,” he said.

At the same time, Poliakoff said that boards should regularly review bylaws, which often have guidelines for what constitutes a conflict of interest. The bylaws for Raritan Valley’s board do not mention conflict of interest or policies for advocacy outside the college.

Alexa Offenhauer, an assistant professor of English at Raritan Valley who is calling for Nace's resignation, said the issue isn't about free speech but rather about a conflict with the college's mission statement, which includes a commitment to diversity. While Offenhauer said Nace has a right to free speech, she also needs to recognize that aligning herself with certain groups could create ideological conflicts with the people she serves at the college.

"She is publicly putting her name and face on something saying that LGBTQ issues shouldn't exist in the full public sphere, including education," Offenhauer said. "It's not that you can't say it, but that you can't say it and lead this community."

Brown said trustees must make a judgment call as to what organizations could create conflicts with their roles with the college.

“I would always err on the side of common sense and judgment. You always want to avoid doing anything that might roll back on the board or college,” he said.

Accreditors are also looking more closely at issues within boards of trustees, like conflicts and controversy, and Brown tells his association’s members that they are “being watched.”