IOWA CITY — Sparked by events like this month’s white nationalist rally in Virginia, a group of University of Iowa professors is crafting principles that seek to balance the needs of free speech, academic freedom and campus security in response to such an event happening here.
“The idea is that a statement on principles and values will give direction bearing, and possibly continuity, for when decisions have to be made,” professor and Interim Director of the School of Art and Art History Steve McGuire told the UI Faculty Council this week.
A faculty committee on academic values began meeting almost two years ago — after a visiting professor had erected a Ku Klux Klan-likened statue on campus without permission, sparking controversy.
Since then, incidents nationally and locally that disrupt college campuses have the committee tracking how other schools are responding to the shifting climate.
By collecting best practices, McGuire said, the group hopes to “operationalize” a UI culture that guides its response.
“Like other campuses, the level of coordination is different on the day. But everyone now is acutely aware of the need to have a very coordinated, thoughtful response,” McGuire said.
Recent incidents on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville — where white nationalists marched with torches and chanted racist slogans — and at the University of California-Berkeley — where conservative firebrands are expected to speak next month despite threats of violence — have expedited the committee’s work, McGuire said. The group now hopes to provide a draft to fellow faculty members by Sept. 6.
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Eventually, McGuire said, the faculty aims to use that statement as a guide to responding to different types of situations — including when faculty are “gone after and attacked.”
“On our own campus this year, some of our faculty have come under attack for their scholarship,” professor Peter Snyder, president of the UI Faculty Senate, told the council.
The incidents include emails considered hateful or threatening sent to at least three professors in the colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Education. And Kevin Kregel, associate provost for UI faculty, recounted one story from the first day of the semester last week that left students feeling “uncomfortable and intimidated.”
The incident occurred in an “Introduction to Islamic Civilization” course after the professor asked students why they took the class. One of the first to speak, from the back of the room, said something to the effect of how “he just wanted to see for himself what he’d heard about the course,” Kregel said.
The person then got up, grabbed his backpack and began heading to the front of the room.
“The professor could not tell if he was coming straight at him, or what his intentions were,” Kregel said. “Fortunately, he kept on walking out the door and left the room. The professor doesn’t know if he was enrolled in the course. But the sense from the professor was that the students felt uncomfortable and intimidated in this environment.”
That professor had received some “hate-filled emails” over the summer, “probably related to the fact that he was teaching a course on Islamic civilization.”
The UI has policies in about academic freedom, free speech and crisis response. But McGuire said they don’t give detailed plans and communication chains of command in, for example, the case of a controversial speaker on campus.
UC-Berkeley, which has dealt with that in depth, has used its values statement as a guide in creating a plan.
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“So right now, the committee is working on a statement very similar to that — that would be brought to Faculty Council and Faculty Senate,” McGuire said.
He said updating policies and procedures around the issue also could serve to better educate the UI community, as some students don’t well understand academic freedom or freedom of speech, and even express a hostile view toward those ideals.
UI finance professor and Faculty Council member Artem Durnev supported the committee’s work, reporting he has felt intimated in the classroom at times and has called campus police just in case.
UI adjunct professor Carrie York Al-Karam, who debuted an “Introduction to Islamic Psychology” course this fall, said she hasn’t been targeted for her academic endeavors — but she’s glad the university is preparing itself.
That’s the goal, said McGuire, who noted academia is changing.
“It’s requiring universities to have responses and support that had never been envisioned previously,” he said. “This is all new ground.”
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