It’s the job of professors at the University to broaden opinions and stimulate discussion. As a result, students should be able to assume their professors have the freedom to speak openly. In their capacity as educators and public servants, professors have a right and responsibility to express their opinions freely. But due to recent legal decisions in which professors at other colleges have suffered punishments for speaking out against their universities, the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, the faculty’s governing body, has initiated efforts to stop similar issues from ever becoming a problem here. As SACUA prompts discussion, the University should be aware of the importance of professors’ right to free speech.
Among other recent cases limiting professors’ First Amendment rights, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee reprimanded Prof. Kevin Renken after he spoke out against how the administration used a grant from the National Science Foundation. Renken felt that his vocal opposition was justified because the issue was one of public concern. The Seventh District Court and U.S. Appeals Court for the Seventh Circuit supported the University of Wisconsin administration’s actions against Renken. The court decided that Renken’s opinions were not protected under the First Amendment because he was acting as a professor — a government employee.
Renken’s case sets a dangerous precedent for other universities — one that could infringe on professors’ rights to speak out against their administrations. All professors have a right to academic and intellectual independence — more than that, professors have a responsibility to their profession and their students to share these opinions. Turning a critical eye to university affairs is every professor’s duty when a university administration makes a poor decision. The ability for faculty members to speak up is one of the safeguards for ensuring that a university is running properly and ethically.
Though there has not been any such legal action at the University of Michigan, cases like Renken’s have prompted the faculty to start a conversation with the University about guaranteeing that the speech problems faced at other academic institutions will not develop on this campus. To avoid any potential conflicts, SACUA will present a report on the issue to the Board of Regents. The discussion will hopefully ensure that faculty members’ opinions will not jeopardize their relationship with the University.
The faculty’s concerns about the issue should prompt an appropriate response from the regents. The University needs to recognize that academic freedom is pivotally important to the student body and the administration. That doesn’t necessarily mean a policy overhaul is called for, but it does mean that the University should be open and available to responsible dialogue.
If the University wants to maintain its commitment to a climate of academic freedom, professors must feel free to voice honest opinions. If professors have to worry about losing their jobs when they speak out against the administration, a healthy academic climate can’t exist on campus. The regents should signal their support for basic intellectual freedom after SACUA makes its report. The University’s academic climate must be one based on freedom, not censorship.