This past December, Susan J. Douglas, chair of the University’s Communication Studies Department, penned a controversial column on partisan politics for In These Times, a nonprofit online magazine. In the piece, Douglas confessed “I hate Republicans,” much to the dismay of campus conservatives and several members of the Board of Regents.
At December’s monthly Board of Regents meeting, Regent Laurence Deitch (D–Grosse Pointe) said the article was “stupid and thoughtless.” Regent Andrea Fischer Newman (R–Ann Arbor) posted on Facebook that “this particular column, which expresses and condones hatred toward an entire segment of individuals in our society based solely on their political views, fails to observe an equally important value of our University — respect for the right of others to hold views contrary to our own.”
In an e-mail to the Ann Arbor News, University Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald maintained that “faculty freedom of expression, including in the public sphere, is one of the core values of our institution,” but that “the University must and will work vigilantly to ensure students can express diverse ideas and perspectives in a respectful environment and without fear of reprisal.”
As the University has recently learned, “freedom of expression” and “a respectful environment” do not always easily gel. Yet, aside from a few disapproving comments from members of the Board, the University has seemingly failed to acknowledge the massive problem illustrated by Douglas’ column: in effort to maintain freedom of speech for its faculty, the University has all but failed to preserve that same right for many of its students.
When faculty express hatred for entire groups of students based on their political orientation, many may refrain from sharing that identity, or a perspective that might betray it. As Gabriel Leaf — chairperson of the University’s chapter of College Republicans — told the Detroit News, these kinds of statements might “not really allow that open discussion to happen.” Grant Strobl — chairperson of the University’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom — told the Detroit News that the article could “intimidate and inhibit the student’s freedom of expression.”
Which certainly makes sense: How many people would really feel comfortable sharing their political identity with a faculty member who is vocally prejudiced against it? I wouldn’t be, and not for fear that the professor might disagree with my opinion. Rather, I would be concerned that they might dislike me not because of what I think, but because of who they think I am — based not what I stand for, but whom I vote for.
It doesn’t matter that Douglas disagrees, as she shares in her column, with Republican policies on issues like immigration, women’s rights and climate change. And if Douglas simply wrote that she hated certain Republicans, that wouldn’t be so problematic either.
But generalizing feelings toward a group of people based on a single identity is meaningless, inadequate and harmful. It facilitates stereotyping and discrimination by failing to differentiate the individual from a group that they identify with. In this way, directing hatred toward a group of people based on their political identity is all but tantamount to doing so based on any other identity — socioeconomic, religious, cultural, racial or otherwise.
Further, hatred toward a political group fails to capture the heterogeneity amongst people holding any given political identity. Of the many Republicans I know and have worked with, several have opposite views on climate change mitigation, gay marriage, a woman’s (or man’s) right to choose and the use of predator drones in the Middle East, just to name a few. One could hate all of these people based on … what exactly? Views they may not hold? OK then.
Yet, while students might (very justifiably) feel silenced for fear of being hated by their professor, the University has totally failed to recognize that its policies have, in large part, facilitated this sort of situation to occur. The University’s anti-discrimination policy protects almost all identities save for political ones. Meanwhile, faculty might reserve their first amendment rights to publish and say whatever they damn well please politically, regardless of the intimidating effects it may have on students.
This is unacceptable. The University is meant to be a collaborative place where new ideas and solutions are born from intense discussion and debate. Call me idealistic, but I think that students should be part of that process. Is that really possible when their educators take actions that intimidate them from speaking their minds? Can professors conceivably foster nascent talent and personal growth in an environment that they’ve personally damaged?
I don’t think so. I find it impossibly ironic that, at a school with a history of political engagement and activism, students are not protected from discrimination based on political identity. Especially in certain fields like political science, the University cannot be expected to produce critically thinking, argumentative, innovative thinkers if students don’t feel free to make known their personal political affiliations. Pushing students toward a single viewpoint isn’t only wrong — it’s boring, it’s tired and it’s not what education was designed to do.
Regent Mark Bernstein (D–Ann Arbor) put it very well at the Regents’ meeting when he mentioned that “it’s really important that we distinguish between people and policy … we have to respect each other.”
It’s time that the University enacts a policy to institutionalize that respect. I am personally an ardent defender of the right to free speech, and generally believe that people do have the right to say or publish what they want. But students have rights as well: the right to feel safe in class, the right to be evaluated as an individual and the right to freely speak without fear of unfair grading or inequitable treatment from faculty.
So while free speech is essential to a dynamic academic community, I think it’s time to carefully reconsider who at the University actually experiences this right — it certainly isn’t the students at the moment. By allowing faculty the right to produce speech that discriminates against any given political identity, the University is de facto allowing many to be silenced. The University has the responsibility to restrict speech that advances categorical, generalized disapproval of and bias against a political identity, as Douglas’s column clearly did.
The problem isn’t that many professors — and students — at the University identify as Democrats or hold liberal views. So long as a respectful environment is maintained, I see no reason why individuals from every point on the political spectrum couldn’t engage in productive, thought-provoking dialogue. But when students are discredited simply due to a political identity — no matter what that identity is — their academic freedom is surely limited.
Victoria Noble can be reached at email@example.com.