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2009-03-09

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Faculty body to ask regents for further protections of free speech rights

By Kyle Swanson, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 8, 2009

The state of academic freedom on college campuses has changed, some argue, after several recent court cases have arguably infringed on professors' right to publicly disagree with their university’s administration.

However, the University's leading faculty governance body is taking the first steps to prevent a similar scenario from playing out on campus.

LSA Prof. Bruce Frier, a member of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, said the body will present the Board of Regents with a faculty governance update report at this month’s meeting. The report focuses on faculty rights to dissent against the University and its administrators without fear of retribution — such as a decrease in pay or demotion.

Some have argued that several recent court cases around the nation have restricted the right of professors to speak out against their university while in their official capacity, often citing that because they are public employees, their rights are restricted.

Frier, who also teaches in the Law School, said the court decisions represent a fundamental shift in faculty members’ rights and protections.

“The basic question is a series of recent court decisions that have altered some traditional understandings of the role of faculty members in governance of the university,” he said. “The general drift of these decisions is that faculty members can be disciplined for protesting administrative decisions that are made.”

Frier used the example of a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee who was disciplined after he publicly protested university administrators' handling of a federal grant.

In the case, Renken v. Gregory, Prof. Kevin Renken argued that officials from his university had retaliated against him for complaining about the way his university decided to use federal grant money from the National Science Foundation.

Renken argued his protest against the university was protected under the First Amendment because he was protesting a matter of public concern. He asserted that the university should not have been allowed to take disciplinary action against him. Despite his claims, the Seventh District Court and the U.S. Appeals Court for the Seventh Circuit both held that Renken’s complaints were not protected under the First Amendment because Renken made the complaint as part of his official duties as a professor.

Frier said if a university can punish a professor for disagreeing with administrators at the university, then faculty will likely not express their true concerns.

“If, for instance, I was in a dispute with an administrator over, for instance, a grant or something like that and the administrator had the capacity to say at the end of the day ‘If you don’t go along with me, I will lower your salary,’ that makes a considerable difference to the discussion,” he said.

University Spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said she doesn’t believe the recent court cases at other universities would influence anything at the University of Michigan.

“Nothing in the recent court decisions affects or diminishes the University's deep commitment to academic freedom,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Frier said there is no immediate fear that this might happen at the University of Michigan. Instead, he explained that SACUA is addressing the regents because the body wants to avoid a potential future conflict.

“We’re talking about this in terms of what might happen down the line,” he said. “There’s no immediate question.”

Frier said SACUA doesn’t have a specific course of action in mind right now, but is open to several approaches to prevent faculty at the University from being threatened by the court decisions.

“Everybody agrees this should be negotiable,” he said. “There are a number of specific forms.”

Although the report will be presented to the regents, Frier said he doesn’t expect they will take action on the issue. Instead, Frier said he thinks most of the work can be done between faculty and administrators.

“It’s really just a courtesy to the regents,” he said. “This is an issue of current concern to the faculty and so we wanted to convey it.”


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