Blogs > Cliopatria > Penn and Academic Freedom

Feb 2, 2004 2:38 pm

Penn and Academic Freedom

Erin O’Connor has an important post today on a case of academic freedom emerging at Penn, where an assistant professor of psychology, Francisco Gil-White, is about to be denied tenure. Gil-White is deputy editor of a weblog highly critical both of U.S. policy in the Balkans (one posting compares the US to the Nazi war machine) and anti-semitism—certainly an unusual mixture of ideas. He published an op-ed on his situation and has also posted documents relating to his case on a website.

But while it is clear that this case involves academic freedom, it is not yet clear what type of academic freedom is in play here. Gil-White contends that some members of his department have attempted to silence him because of the outspoken nature of his criticism of US foreign policy. He also notes that he angered the Penn administration after he criticized it for bring to campus and paying the expenses of a notorious anti-Semite. He notes that his record of publications is very strong (as, indeed, the CV on his website suggests). He also seems to have a good record of teaching; and, of course, are the criteria on which tenure should be based.

Gil-White’s chief piece of evidence bolstering his claim of denial of academic freedom comes in the form of an email from a senior colleague, Paul Rozin, who was serving as his departmental mentor in the personnel process, which I’ll reprint here:

Francisco. I'm afraid you need protection, whether you think so or not. Everyone is censored all of the time, as when, for example, you decide not to ask a question at a talk, or tell someone you think their work or mind is poor. By mixing your politics and your teaching, you are treading on very dangerous ground. The students from whom I heard about your course, were not only surprised at your session on Milosevic, but felt it was delivered with a passion that was unlike the rest of your course, and inappropriate for a university class. Frankly, from what I can tell, at least among the people I deal with (students and faculty), your impassioned endorsement of your views gets in the way of your communicating, and causes people to doubt you. In any event, I am opposed to Bush, capital punishment, and many other things, but I do not bring this up in class. It is a particular problem for you because you are trying to shield your political writings from consideration as part of your dossier. Unfortunately, by bringing this up in your course, you have made this much more difficult. I can't believe your conscience prevents you from withholding some of your political views in class. ALL of the rest of the faculty manage to do that. I know you feel that you have a piece of the truth that no one knows, but you are not unique in that, and anyway, you may be wrong. I will not defend your right to say anything you want in class. You don't have that right. No one does. You have a responsibility as a faculty member. I think you are being way overrighteous, and are being blinded by your political convictions. If you really feel that compelled by them, you should resign your academic position, and move on to journalism.

Unlike Gil-White, I see very little objectionable in this email: it is an instruction that professors should keep their political beliefs out of the classroom, so as to create an environmental hospitable to students’ academic freedom. It does not tell Gil-White that he should cease his writings on US policy in the Balkans.

The question, then, revolves around the pedagogical approach that Gil-Reyes takes in his classroom. His website doesn’t post syllabi. And it would be interesting to hear what Penn students say: the teacher evaluations posted are good, but not great.

At this stage, I would agree with O’Connor’s that at the very least, this case confirms the need for greater transparency in the academic personnel process. As I discovered in my own case, those interested in corrupting a tenure case often assume that they can get away with their efforts because they are not required to defend their actions openly. In the tenure process as in the student judicial process, Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate are right: sunlight is the best disinfectant.

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Timothy James Burke - 2/3/2004

Reading through all of Gil-White's site, I see he feels that Paul Rozin was specifically targeting Gil-White's Yugoslavia arguments as "political" becaue he disagreed with them, allegedly in connection to an institute that Rozin is connected with.

Hard to judge this one. I don't think I buy the basic premise that politics per se are inappropriate in a professor's classroom, or that strong views, strongly expressed, violate some promise of decorum. Variety the spice of life, and a professoriate that consists of professionals who range from impassioned polemicists to Mr. Spock-like cases of modulation and control seems a good thing.

The only real issue with "politics" is the question of when someone's passions or politics leads them so far from the material that they are teaching about that their courses become mere exercises in performative self-indulgence that satisfy neither the purposes of a curriculum nor the sense that students take courses in order to learn something beyond "What Professor X Thinks About the Universe". In that respect, Rozin's concerns could be legitimate, but it's hard for me to tell, not knowing enough about what's really going on here. Even Gil-White seems to concede in some materials on his website (specifically the email to which Rozin is replying) that some of his early presentations at Penn about Yugoslavia were inappropriately strident.

Another issue here is the entire idea of mentoring. When I've talked to former undergraduates of mine who are dealing with questions about how to pursue graduate study (or problems they've run into as graduate students) it seems to me that I ought to offer two separate tracks of advice. One is about what ought to be, and the other is about what is. In the latter, I might advise them to be extraordinarily cautious and protective of what they say and how they say it; in the former, I'd counsel that academia can't get better until everyone ignores the prudent advice. Anyone assigned to mentor a junior faculty member is going to be in the same boat: if you tell them what the implicit, sometime sinister constraints on academic freedom actually are, you could legitimately be accused of doing the work of repressing academic freedom, of reinforcing those constraints. If you don't talk about those issues, you're being a bad mentor who will probably get someone in serious trouble.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/3/2004

First, to respond to Jonathan (D!): I would agree entirely that there should be some monitoring of what faculty do and say in the classroom. Penn, like virtually all institutions of higher learning, has a provision in its bulletin guaranteeting academic freedom to students as well as to professors. Clearly, the academic freedom of professors (because to flows, at least in theory, from their academic training) trumps that of students, but there are cases--professors enforcing political orthodoxy in the classroom--where it seems to me institutions have to step in to protect the rights of students.

Now, to respond to Jonathan (R!): I tried to keep my posting somewhat general, because the facts on this case are not yet clear. Particularly unclear to me is what role the Yugoslavia material is playing in Gil-White's claim to scholarship. You describe this as his schoalrship, but G-W seems to have gone to extraordinary lengths in his CV NOT to describe this as scholarship (he terms it "investigatory journalism"), for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, and the publications on his CV have nothing to do with Yugoslavia, but deal with quite different sets of issues.

I also didn't get the sense that Rozin's email was saying that he agreed with G-W on whether it was appropriate to bring political views into the classroom--Rozin seemed to be saying (and, admittedly, we're interpreting on the basis of very limited info) that he agreed with G-W on political issues, but thought they had no place in the classroom. G-W, in his letter to the chair, says that professors should simply admit their biases and then it's OK to discuss political questions, and chastises Rozin for not doing so.

If the issue is the "tone" of G-W's lectures, or if, in fact, there was an implicit quid pro quo presented to G-W that he needed to cease publications on his website in exchange for tenure, then this would seem to me a case of denial of academic freedom. If, on the other hand, the issue is a professor who wanted to enforce a type of political orthodoxy in his classroom, then the balance would go to the students' rights. There just doesn't seem to be enough information out there right now to determine, at least in my mind.

Jonathan Rees - 2/2/2004


I'm beginning to feel like I'm pestering you, but considering what happened to you last year I really want to try to get you understand why I think your take on this issue is misguided.

Unlike the Rhonda Garelick situation, both Gil-White and his chief faculty opponent agree that talking about Yugoslavia in a biocultural psychology class is entirely appropriate. The objection is not to Gil-White's content, but to its tone. That's why his colleagues are so quick to point to their own liberal credentials. Gil-White's web site contains suggestions of political persecution, but the correspondence he cites centers on his belligerence, not the accuracy or relevance of his position. Gil-White's work on Yugoslavia informs his scholarship. That's how research universities justify faculty research time for scholarship to students. What we do outside the classroom helps us with what we do inside of it.

How is ending someone's career over their belligerence any different than doing the same thing for their lack of collegiality? Both are pretexts for something else. In your case it was politics and it looks like in this case it's the same reason. Accusations of anti-semitism aside, speaking forcefully against US policy in Yugoslavia is just as political as firing someone for the same reason. A pretext coming from the left is the same thing as a pretext coming from the right.

You and I both read about this case first on Erin O'Connor's blog. Her politics and mine are quite different, but I like reading her stuff because I think, whether she is writing about the exploitation of TAs and adjunct faculty, speech codes or tenure battles, she recognizes an abuse of power when she sees one. Give liberals or radicals unchecked power they abuse it. Give conservatives unchecked power, they do the same thing. I agree with you that sunlight is the solution here, but don't assume that liberal politics is the cause.

Jonathan Rees

Jonathan Dresner - 2/2/2004

I have mixed feelings about this. Sure, the classroom is supposed to be focused on the academic issues. But how many tenured faculty have you heard of whose classrooms are basically extended discourses on whatever they're interested in? What use is academic freedom after tenure if we're all so self-censored by the time that we get there that nothing *ever* shakes us loose from our syllabi? What good is close monitoring of untenured faculty when the tenured faculty perpetrate pedagogical atrocities with no review or rebuke?

I'm all for high standards in teaching, professionalism in the classroom. But sometimes "critical thinking" needs to break boundaries.

Argh. Mental tangles. No time: must go to departmental assessment meeting. Why do we assess when only untenured faculty can be penalized? Who knows? It is the buzzword. Must follow the buzzword....