In a climate in which more and more students are suing professors over grades, inappropriate course material and other issues, Michael Olivas, the director of the Institute for Higher Education Law and Governance at the University of Houston, discussed in a speech yesterday the importance of sustaining academic freedom for faculty in the face of student lawsuits.
His lecture called, “God, Grades, and Sex: The Developing Law of the College Classroom,” is the 20th annual University of Michigan Senate Assembly’s Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.
The Senate Assembly established the lecture series in 1990 as a tribute to three professors after they refused to testify in 1954 to the United States House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities. Two of the professors were terminated and one was suspended but then re-instated when they refused to testify.
As he introduced Olivas, University Provost Phil Hanlon recognized Chandler Davis among the audience as one of the three professors.
In front of an audience of about 80 people, Olivas discussed the increasing trend in higher education of students suing professors. Also the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair of Law at the University of Houston, Olivas said the number of lawsuits has been on the rise since the 1960s.
“It is very clear that this is a pathway that students have found attractive,” Olivas said.
Giving several examples of student-teacher lawsuits, Olivas said some of the confusion in court rulings on the issue stems from the courts viewing professors as spokespeople of their public institutions. With this view, Olivas said professors are condemned for speaking out for or against religion.
Sometimes these condemnations are unjust, Olivas said, as with the example of a Mormon theatre student who refused to read and act out material she felt was sacrilegious. In this case, Olivas said he felt it was the professor’s right to choose his classroom materials and assignments.
Though these professors may be condemned for the wrong reasons, Olivas said he does recognize that there are some professors who take too many liberties with course material and their treatment of students.
Olivas cited one professor who used Hustler magazine as assigned reading for his remedial English class, which made his students feel unintelligent and uncomfortable.
While Olivas said he strives to get students out of their comfort zones by challenging their assumptions and opinions, he said he feels it is unacceptable to mock or sexually harass them.
Olivas added that though he encourages classroom discussion of controversial topics, professors must set guidelines for conversations or paper topics and also give students a way to communicate their displeasure or discomfort both outside and inside of the classroom.
As an overall solution to the legal issues faculty members face, Olivas said a university must recognize that its different departments have different modes of instruction.
“All of us evolve a certain style, one that makes sense to us and that is appropriate as long as we stick to germane material, as long as we don’t exploit it, as long as we don’t use it as a platform for introducing irrelevant ideas into discussion (and) as long as we don’t use it to single out students for disapprobation,” he said.
But in addition to giving autonomy to faculty, universities ought to have institutional norms and codes of conduct in place, Olivas said. He added that senior faculty members must teach these norms to junior faculty members, so that the faculty can become self-monitoring.
Olivas said that by using a system like this, members of a faculty can feel comfortable standing together if one is the target of a lawsuit.
“If they’re under assault, all of us are under assault,” he said.
In an interview after the lecture, Olivas said he is passionate about the issue of academic freedom given the nature of the threat it poses to all educators.
“I believe in the enterprise, and I want to make it a better place to work and live and do my research,” he said. “When anybody else’s interests are harmed, I think they threaten all of our interests.”
After the lecture ended, LSA junior Michael Borromeo said he found the lecture to be “very informative.”
“It was a lot of issues that I wouldn’t normally think about,” Borromeo said.
Jack Bernard, the University’s assistant general counsel, said he has been to every lecture in the series since 1995, adding, “academic freedom is a very important principle that the University needs to support.”
“I would have loved to have seen more faculty here because it’s at the heart of what faculty do,” Bernard said.