A screenshot of a Zoom meeting features SACUA members who attended virtually and in-person
Courtesy of Tina Yu

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The Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs discussed a resolution on academic freedom on all three University of Michigan campuses at their hybrid meeting Monday afternoon in the Ruthven Building. 

The resolution aims to protect the U-M curriculum from any restrictions on what topics can be taught, especially those that relate to racial and social justice. The resolution was introduced by Mark Allison, an associate professor of computer science at the University’s Flint campus.

SACUA Assembly Chair Allen Liu, a U-M Engineering professor, said that SACUA has been considering a resolution on academic freedom for some time. 

“We definitely are interested in putting in a resolution for (academic freedom),” Liu said. “(The resolution is) a strong voice on this issue of academic freedom, and most of us on SACUA talked about this maybe a few weeks back.” 

Members of SACUA highlighted legislation recently passed or proposed in multiple states, including Michigan, that limit discussions on racism, critical race theory and other related topics in academic settings. This legislation comes alongside a recent movement to ban books dealing with race, gender and sexuality from public school libraries. SACUA members also expressed concern that many U.S. students do not have enough knowledge of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ history as well as societal structures and institutions that lead to inequality. 

The resolution states that being educated on systemic barriers and topics in race and gender is a crucial quality of an informed citizen. It also states that the Faculty Senate should reject any external attempts to control or change the U-M curriculum and calls upon Interim University President Mary Sue Coleman and University Provost Susan Collins to make the same promise. 

SACUA member Michael Atzmon, a U-M Engineering professor, questioned whether this resolution would affect the teaching of historical artworks that are discriminatory. 

“Historically, there are pieces of art that are considered sexist and racist and biased in many ways,” Atzmon said. “Could the principles expressed in this statement be used to silence any teaching of such pieces, even in a critical way?” 

In response, Allison said the goal of this resolution is to give faculty the power to decide what should and should not be included in course materials and research topics.

“I believe the spirit of this document is to support the academic freedom within the classroom and in research, (and) that faculty would make that decision,” Allison said. “It’s basically a resolution to strengthen our academic freedom within the classroom.”  

SACUA Vice Chair Caitlin Finlayson, associate professor of English literature at the U-M Dearborn campus, agreed with Allison that the resolution would not restrict discussions in the classroom on controversial historical works. 

“I teach medieval and renaissance literature and there’s a whole body of stuff that’s anti-Catholic … misogynist … (and) racist, and we talk about those issues in my class,” Finlayson said. “And we contextualize them in history and culture and society, but we need to have that free exchange. I looked at this very closely to make sure that (the resolution) wouldn’t infringe on those sorts of conversations. Well, I don’t see how it would do that.” 

SACUA members voted on proposed changes to the wording of the resolution before it was passed by the committee. 

Daily Staff Reporter Tina Yu can be reached at tinapyyu@umich.edu