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The Amy Wax Problem in Higher Education

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When I was a junior faculty member, I thought of the term ProfessionalOne of the worthy terms that can be invoked to despise someone who doesn’t fit in.

I thought criticizing someone for being unprofessional was an easy way to attack a colleague based on their ideas, attitude, or appearance.

My position has changed over the years. I have become more sensitive to the way faculty members abuse their professional status not only to bully, harass and intimidate, but to effectively justify what they say and do.

I now believe we have a right to expect professionalism from our colleagues. Even if the meaning of the concept was not very clear or obvious.

A recent Jonathan Zimmerman higher education internal essay Entitled “My Amy Wax Problem,” I think this issue is one of the most insightful, thoughtful, and balanced arguments I’ve read about restricting free speech in the Academy.

His contention that academic freedom protects Amy Wax’s right to speak her mind, but not her right to insult or discriminate against individual students, is an important educational controversy argued by Professor Zimmerman. A striking example of the balance and nuance it brings to education, poor education, or free speech.

Nonetheless, while I agree with Professor Zimmerman’s assertion in this particular case, I believe there are some difficult issues that merit further scrutiny.

One of these problems, I think, is relatively easy. To what extent should college or university administrators condemn faculty behavior they deem inappropriate or bad before an investigation by the relevant faculty committee?

Was it appropriate, for example, for the dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School to call for massive sanctions based on Professor Wax’s “official statements” and unprofessional behavior? I don’t think so.

Administrators may speak in general terms about their institution’s values, but I think these individuals seem to prejudge the case regardless of how deeply they feel about a particular issue. I think it’s wrong to look like an admin should not play in front of a crowd. In addition, faculty and staff should not feel threatened with retaliation for not following an administrator’s preferred course of conduct.

In my view, educational institutions, and only educational institutions, should adjudicate such cases without the impression that failure to act in a manner preferred by the institution’s leadership is a problem. Managers should not set expectations about the results they prefer.

Two problems are more difficult for me. The first is the issue of damage. How should we interpret the legal and moral principle that students should not be exposed to hostile learning environments?

Clearly, no student should be subjected to “serious, pervasive, persistent” harassment or bullying. But what about the broader principle that students should not be placed in environments that deny, limit, or impede their ability to learn? What faculty members say outside of the classroom is clearly offensive, and shouldn’t any reasonable student be able to appreciate prejudice, prejudice, and favoritism?

One recurring example involves Jewish students who fear their attitudes toward Israel will work against them. After all, there have been cases of faculty members refusing to write letters of recommendation to students studying in Israel. I’ve been there before.

Should faculty members’ derogatory remarks be directed at individual students (the Wax case alleged), or are they generalized enough to demand redress? , what is the appropriate response?

  • Should the Chair or Dean give advice to faculty? Hold public hearings? Consult the executive committee? Do you act unilaterally and aggressively?
  • Is it enough to give students the option of taking classes with other instructors, or can the impression of prejudice and prejudice be so extreme as to justify the suspension or dismissal of the instructor?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but transparency seems to me to be a sound guide. Administrators should ensure that all faculty members understand their institution’s policies regarding off-campus and in-person faculty-to-student speeches. Faculty and staff should also be informed of legal rules designed to protect students from harmful educational environments, and the possible consequences of violating those rules.

The second issue that I find particularly difficult has to do with professional integrity and fitness. Could the faculty member’s remarks or other actions outside of school suggest that they are inappropriate for being in the classroom?

What about faculty members who hold conspiracy theories? In the case of Wax, they openly express prejudices and prejudices? What about a faculty member who automatically gives an A to a student or certain students?

Does it make a difference if the instructor has tenure or not?

Don’t think of these issues as ethical abstractions. Among the recent examples:

Some recall the case of Ward L. Churchill, who called the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks “Little Eichmann”, leading the University of Colorado to launch an investigation and dismiss Churchill for alleged research misconduct. There will be many.

Or it erupted after University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer claimed that “the United States, by expanding NATO eastward and establishing friendly relations with Ukraine,” helped facilitate Russian aggression. , consider the more recent fire storm.

Those who bear the brunt of the ineligibility criticism tend to be those whose ideas stray from established consensus, who are not up to date with the latest academics, who are poorly educated, whose academics are shoddy or Non-existent, consistently alienating students or giving unfair or inconsistent grading.

Don’t expect toxic, harmful, unsafe or hostile educational or work environments or controversies about professional misconduct, integrity or fitness to go away. In today’s highly politicized, polarized and partisan society, academies are neither ivory towers nor safe places for difficult conversations. It is at the epicenter of much of the controversy.

On the other hand, in the age of social media, there are many incentives for faculty and staff to be deliberately provocative and confrontational, expressing opinions in inflammatory and sometimes insulting terms. In fact, I know of cases where universities hired faculty for their controversial reputation.

So what should we do?

1. In most cases, including the recognition of prejudices and prejudices of professors, it is necessary to follow Professor Zimmerman’s advice to ridicule, ridicule, slander, insult, and direct attention to targeted conduct or statements.

2. We will not deliberately allow students and fellow faculty members to “weaponize” accusations of hostile educational environments and professional inadequacies as a way of punishing those with whom we disagree. Or must be very careful not to encourage carelessness. It must be recognized that even the process of formally investigating such accusations inevitably has a chilling effect.

3. Administrative responses must be fully consistent and carefully tailored to the severity of the violation. Colleges and universities should follow the principle that punishment should fit the crime, and similar crimes should be punished in parallel.

Academic freedom and freedom of speech are fragile flowers, dependent on acceptance of differences and a measure of civility. If colleges and universities are to function as laboratories for the free exchange of ideas, as bastions for independent thought, as cauldrons of endless intellectual debate, then we must wipe out adversaries and eliminate internal enemies. We must beware of the temptation to suppress and quell disagreements. .

But that doesn’t mean all opinions are accepted. Making judgments about harm and professional fitness ultimately hinges on the very professionalism I mistakenly questioned early in life.

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.