Michigan State University chapter, American Association of University Professors
Professor Mae Kuykendall, President, for the Executive Committee
For immediate release (Issued September 6, 2013)
A GREAT UNIVERSITY DEFENDS ACADEMIC FREEDOM
The Michigan State University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors affirms the importance of mutual respect in faculty-student interactions. That important value coexists with strong norms of academic freedom and deep respect for process for members of the University community, among whom are the faculty who are appointed to bring challenging ideas forward for students to hear and debate. For that reason, it is vital to ensure that the procedures for determining whether a professor may have acted outside the umbrella of protection for the exercise of academic freedom in the classroom be thorough and infused with the spirit of due process.
A video, however apparently conclusive as evidence of offensive statements or disrespect to students, is not an adequate basis for immediate punitive action against a professor, as in the matter involving Professor William Penn. The MSU Faculty Handbook details the procedures that must be followed in cases of disciplinary action against a professor. In particular, we note that the title of the course being taught by Professor Penn is Literatures, Cultures, Identities. We also note that Professor Penn is an award-winning novelist, who might be expected to speak in vivid language meant to provoke and surprise students accustomed to less hyperbolic forms of exchange. Combining the subject of identities with the linguistic range of a novelist as professor can be expected to produce explorations of identities that stretch the usual boundaries.
A professor may well experiment with modes of presentation meant to shock. We are not prepared to agree that no professor may do that in the exercise of judgment about means of engaging students. We do not believe that what we know from the release of the video is sufficient as a basis to conclude that Professor Penn should not continue to receive the protections afforded by academic freedom. Indeed, we are concerned by the suggestion that one ten-minute video taken by a student of a professor in a class can be the basis for abbreviating the process leading to suspension of the professor from teaching responsibilities. The harm of a professor's controversial approach to stimulating students’ response, expressing his own take on one "identity," is minor compared with the chill on the classroom that arises from a rush to judgment in which there has not been an open fact-finding process or deliberation by a faculty body.