Professors at the University need greater academic freedom rights. Or so say members of the University’s top faculty body in a report that will be submitted to the University’s Board of Regents on Thursday.
Members of the faculty group the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs discussed submitting a letter to the regents at one of its meetings earlier this month. The group decided to draft a report to the regents on the topic in response to several recent court cases in which professors’ right to speak out publicly against the University they work for have been brought into question.
One recent case SACUA members will use as an example in their report to the regents will be Renken v. Gregory. The case involved a professor from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee who criticized his superiors for mishandling a federal grant. Shortly after his criticism, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee returned the grant money and Renken’s pay was cut.
Renken sued the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, claiming his right to dissent was protected by the First Amendment. However, the court ruled that because Renken’s comments were made in connection to his official duties at the university, his rights were not protected. Had his comments been made outside of his official duties, like in a public newspaper, the court said his rights may have been protected.
In their report, SACUA members have written that the Renken case, among others, demonstrates the need for action by the University of Michigan.
“We have come to believe quite strongly that Michigan needs to preempt these developments by shifting away from the First Amendment to a reassertion of academic freedom within the institution,” SACUA members wrote.
The report calls on the regents and University administrators to create a policy that will extend faculty members’ academic rights to include the freedom of speech as defined in this circumstance.
“We recommend that the University … expand the definition of academic freedom to cover speech ‘on matters of public concern as well as on matters related to professional duties and the functioning of the university,’ ” the report said.
According to the report, such a change would protect faculty members from a possible academic freedom issue, like the one at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in the future.
“Such a change would have the benefit of discouraging routine use of administrative discipline against professors who raise internal criticisms against this university’s policies and their implementation,” SACUA wrote.
Although the full report is posted on the regents’ website, the regents will not officially receive the report until their monthly meeting on Thursday afternoon.
Classics and Law School Prof. Bruce Frier, who helped draft the report to the regents, said earlier this month that the report was meant to notify the regents of the issue, but that he didn’t expect the regents to take action on it.
“It really is just a courtesy to the regents,” he said. “It’s not that I think anyone really expects the regents to do anything (about this) themselves.”
Frier said SACUA wanted to bring the issue before the regents now, while the issue is not of immediate concern, to avoid the perception that the report had any ties to a situation on campus.
“We wanted to proceed now before there was a controversy so it would not seem that when a controversy eventually occurred it was coming up in the context of some specific debate,” he said.
SACUA has already met with the Office of the President, Office of the Provost and the Office of the General Counsel on the issue.
University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said the University doesn’t believe this is a topic of concern or that anything needs to be done about the issue.
“Our commitment to protecting faculty free speech is as strong as ever,” she wrote in an e-mail. “(The court cases) do not change our fundamental philosophy and commitment to faculty free speech and academic freedom.”
In an exclusive interview yesterday, Provost Teresa Sullivan said she didn’t yet know enough about the issue to choose a side.
“I don’t have a sufficient understanding of (the cases),” she said, adding that she would need to review a legal memorandum on the issue first.
Sullivan said that while there isn’t time to review the issue right now, she may look into it over the summer.
“I think that right now we don’t have time to get a complete legal memorandum on this,” she said. “I’d like to see if General Counsel can help me with that in the summer.”