This Tenured Professor Said His College’s Reopening Plans Risked Deaths. That’s Now in His Personnel File.Historians in the News
tags: academic freedom, tenure, COVID-19
A tenured faculty member at Juniata College, in Pennsylvania, is facing censure after writing a comment on Facebook critical of his institution’s reopening plans in light of the pandemic.
Administrators at the college placed a letter of reprimand in Douglas A. Stiffler’s personnel file after he wrote that “as the result of Juniata’s decision to hold classes in person, it is quite possible that people who come on to Juniata’s campus will die, as will people in town. That is what is at stake.”
Those words, which Stiffler wrote as a comment on a National Public Radio segment he’d posted about colleges’ responses to the pandemic, violated Juniata’s Faculty Manual, the provost, Lauren Bowen, wrote in the letter of reprimand. The college recognized Stiffler’s right to speak up, she wrote, but “when you state publically [sic] that Juniata’s decision could cause people who come to campus to die, you have gone beyond offering feedback on policy and are not exercising the restraint and respect expected of faculty.”
What faculty members have the right to say, and how, has long been the subject of debate in academe, but the pandemic — and national racial unrest — has sparked a new wave of that conversation. Many faculty members, particular those who aren’t protected by tenure, feel their ability to express their opinions is limited by administrative policy, unspoken threats, or both.
To Stiffler, an associate professor of history, the letter infringed on his academic freedom, and risked chilling the speech of other faculty members. “Tenure is a tremendous privilege, and with it comes responsibility,” Stiffler said. “Those who don’t have tenure are in a particularly vulnerable position and, I think, find the administration’s actions very alarming.”
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