Education

Professor: Academic freedoms are under fire everywhere

'It's an extremely polarizing and dangerous period'

AMES — Days after the American Association of University Professors accused Kirkwood Community College of violating faculty rights and asked it to reinstate a professor removed following his inflammatory comments, former AAUP chairman Henry Reichman said academic freedoms are under fire everywhere.

“This is an extremely dangerous period for academic freedom and for higher education,” Reichman, professor emeritus at California State University and former chairman of the AAUP Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, told The Gazette on Tuesday.

Academic freedom, today’s universities and the faculty they employ are not necessarily alone, or in uncharted territory.

“It’s an extremely polarizing and dangerous period for democracy in general now,” Reichman said, citing increased dissemination of misinformation and the discrediting of facts and science-based truths.

During a talk on the Iowa State University campus Tuesday, Reichman warned of challenges to academic freedom exacerbated by political, corporate and donor interests and influence.

He also noted the impact of social media on today’s higher education landscape, a topic especially relevant to this region as Kirkwood navigates the narrow line between keeping campus safe and honoring faculty freedoms.

Kirkwood administrators last month removed an instructor from the class he was to teach following outcry and threats in response to a KCRG story about his inflammatory online rhetoric.

“We’ve always had extramural expression issues, but what social media has done is it’s amplified the voice and expanded the audience for extramural expression,” Reichman said. “So what might get someone in trouble in the past for speaking to a rally of 50 people, now — even if they think they’re speaking to only 50 people on the internet — they could be speaking to 50,000.”

“So it’s a new challenge in that way, but the same principles should apply.”

In protecting academic freedoms from today’s assailants, Reichman said, administrators should “grow a spine.”

Instead of bowing to external pressures demanding administrators dismiss outspoken professors, take sides and even curtail tenure, universities should stand up for academic freedoms, Reichman said.

Professors, likewise, should educate themselves and then advocate for themselves.

That education should reflect the reality that academic freedom is not the same as free speech, Reichman said. An instructor, for example, isn’t entitled to promote an opinion that the world is flat as part of his or her instruction.

“People as citizens — and professors are citizens — are entitled to free speech,” he said. “But that’s not the same thing as academic freedom.”

Still, he said, academic freedom cannot thrive in an environment of suppressed speech.

“Free speech and academic freedom are not the same thing,” he said. “But I will say this, they’re cousins. The two need each other.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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