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.

Liability, Professionalism, and Academic Freedom

June 8, 2005 by ACTA

In the wake of Harvard president Lawrence Summers' costly remarks on sexual difference and University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill's potentially career-ending comment about the "little Eichmanns" who died on 9/11, media attention has been even more closely focussed than usual on the public statements of prominent academic figures. It came as no surprise, then, when Timothy Shortell, a Brooklyn College sociology professor, made the news when he was nominated for the post of department chair. Despite earning his Ph.D. at Boston College, a Jesuit institution, Shortell is a virulent and unapologetic critic of religion who has written that religious believers are "moral retards" who are "incapable of moral action." On learning of Shortell's uncompromising and cutting words, some called for Shortell's head, and others defended his speech; Brooklyn College responded by launching an investigation into Shortell's competence that promised to respect his rights.

Yesterday, Shortell withdrew his name from consideration; in an email sent to a group of his colleagues and later forwarded to the New York Sun, Shortell described himself as the victim of a political attack, and criticized Brooklyn College for inadequately defending his academic freedom. BC's faculty union is sympathetic to this complaint, and has asked the AAUP to assess whether Shortell's academic freedom was violated. But the AAUP is hedging its bets; according to the Sun, AAUP program officer Robert Kreiser "questioned the extent to which a department chairman--who holds an essentially administrative post--is covered by the protections of academic freedom. He said a college administration may not want to have as chairman someone whose views 'are outside the mainstream' of the department or the college."

Brooklyn College history professor KC Johnson, who has learned the hard way everything there is to know about the politics of academic freedom at Brooklyn College, agrees. In a hard-hitting and detailed post at Cliopatria, Johnson explains not only why Shortell's academic freedom has not been violated, but why CUNY has a legal obligation not to place people whose speech might damage the institution in administrative posts.

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