By DREW HUTCHINSON
Adorning the University of Oklahoma seal is the image of a man, shaded from the sun by his hat, sprinkling seeds on the plowed earth. Below the image are the words “Civi et reipublicae,” which translate to “For the benefit of the citizen and the state.”
OU Provost Kyle Harper said this phrase reflects OU’s dedication to preparing students for both civic life and careers — a mission he said public universities should embrace.
Part of this mission, he said, involves upholding the principles of academic freedom, which give faculty full freedom in research and publication. Harper said this protects free inquiry, which he said benefits students and promotes deep-rooted values of democracy.
“Universities ought to be places where people are exposed to different ideas, where there’s respectful disagreement, where students form their opinions and are challenged to think about what they believe … ” Harper said.
This year, more than 30 colleges and universities have revived their chapters of the American Association of University Professors, an academic freedom advocacy group, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. OU is not among these institutions, a faculty member said. But the issue of academic freedom is alive at the university, for better or worse.
Academic freedom at OU
Megan Elwood Madden, OU Faculty Senate chair, said she estimates academic freedom comes up once per year in her organization, often in differing contexts.
“For example, one of the questions we posed to President (James) Gallogly … focused on the potential effects of private funding and gifts on academic integrity and academic freedom at OU,” Elwood Madden said. “In other cases, Faculty Senate discussions about syllabi and course materials have also included questions about academic freedom.”
Harper also said very few run-ins with academic freedom come to his attention annually. Harper, who earned a degree in letters from OU and a doctorate in history from Harvard University, has been provost since 2015, according to his webpage.
“(Academic freedom is) something that is so fundamental that it frames everything we do in a certain way, and it’s deeply embedded in the institution and practices like tenure,” Harper said. “But at the same time, how many controversial academic freedom issues ever arise? Very few.”
This year, OU has had two known run ins with the issue, one more explicit than the other, when the OU Daily uncovered and published stories on Brian McCall, former associate law dean, and Tom Orr, former school of drama director.
The Daily discovered McCall to be affiliated with three Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate groups: Catholic Family News, where McCall serves as editor-in-chief, The Remnant and The Fatima Center.
McCall also published a 2014 book called To Build the City of God: Living as Catholics in a Secular Age. The book contained controversial passages about women’s dress, women’s voting rights, separation of church and state, gay marriage and education.
“… if there is something really impossible to do in a skirt, does this not indicate this is an activity inappropriate for a woman to perform?” McCall wrote in the book. “A simple test of modest and feminine behavior can be summarized: if you can’t do it modestly and gracefully in a skirt, you shouldn’t do it at all.”
Cary Nelson, former president of the AAUP, said in The Daily’s story that McCall’s publications were protected under academic freedom as a professor but not as an administrator.
Shortly after the story ran, McCall resigned his associate deanship amid public pressure.
“Brian McCall has voluntarily resigned his position as Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, effective immediately, because of the controversy about his personal statements,” Joseph Harroz, OU College of Law dean, said in a statement.
Some readers praised The Daily for exposing McCall’s views. NonDoc, an Oklahoma City news outlet, published an opinion piece by Lori Walke, a minister and Oklahoma City University law school graduate, on Oct. 5. Walke said in the piece that religious fundamentalists had no place in positions of authority.
“As disturbing as McCall’s beliefs are, Oklahomans should be relieved at the outing of these religious fundamentalists,” Walke wrote. “Their ideals are harmful and embarrassing.”
Others were outraged and said the incident was an attack on free speech and academic freedom. The Journal Record published an opinion piece by Andrew C. Spiropoulos, a frequent guest columnist for the publication, on Oct. 10. He said in the piece that the controversy surrounding McCall might make other traditionalists feel excluded from the OU community.
“We don’t know whether McCall was forced out, but we do know that a community genuinely dedicated to the principles of free inquiry and intellectual pluralism would never have let this story end this unhappily,” Spiropoulos wrote.
Harper said many cases of academic freedom arise from areas related to other campus policies.
“Academic freedom is generally something that might be invoked in the course of a conflict or controversy that’s about some other policy,” Harper said. “There are appropriate professional expectations that might be embedded in other policies, for instance, policies against harassment or discrimination, and … students, faculty, employees have mechanisms to pursue issues or problems through those channels.”
Academic freedom allows professors to conduct their classes however they please, unless their teaching displays an incompetence for their area of study, Nelson wrote in “Defining Academic Freedom” for Inside Higher Ed. Academic freedom also does not protect harassment, Nelson wrote.
Tom Orr, OU Helmerich School of Drama professor and former director of the department, also became a controversial figure after The Daily reported that multiple former students had accused him of sexual misconduct. The students said he would often make references to his sexual tastes in class, even disclosing that he was attracted to some of his students.
“Ray said one day, not many students showed up to class, so Orr took them to the campus Starbucks and bought them all coffee. They then sat down in the courtyard of the Oklahoma Memorial Union for class, and during this time Orr said his favorite students were always the ones ‘he’d like to fuck,’” The Daily reported.
In the same story, The Daily reported that a Title IX investigation did not produce substantial evidence of a policy violation on Orr’s part. He has since retained his professorship.
History and future of academic freedom
The provisions of academic freedom can be complicated and at times rely on case-by-case evaluations. In 2010, Inside Higher Ed published Nelson’s piece to break down the idea.
“Academic freedom gives both students and faculty the right to express their views — in speech, writing, and through electronic communication, both on and off campus — without fear of sanction, unless the manner of expression substantially impairs the rights of others or, in the case of faculty members, those views demonstrate that they are professionally ignorant, incompetent, or dishonest with regard to their discipline or fields of expertise,” Nelson wrote.
Academic freedom began to bloom in Medieval European universities, which were somewhat self-governing despite religious oversight, according to New World Encyclopedia. The concept gained traction with Martin Luther’s post on a church door — the Protestant Reformation created Protestant universities, which helped dismantle Catholic control of higher education.
But 19th century Germany is much to credit for academic freedom, University of Waterloo professor Shannon Dea wrote in a piece for Canadian news site University Affairs. Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt helped reform the country’s universities by coining “Lehrfreiheit” and “Lernfreiheit”: “freedom to teach” and “freedom to learn,” Dea wrote.
“(Academic freedom is) a value and an idea that develops in the early to mid 20th century with the modernization of the university … and arises out of efforts to exert political control over inquiry,” Harper said.
Dea wrote that in 1898, American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce gave a lecture at Harvard University, in which he criticized the vocational nature of American universities and praised Germany’s commitment to advancing knowledge. He even called German universities “the light of the whole world,” she wrote.
By 1915, the AAUP had formed and drafted its first statement on academic freedom, the 1915 Declaration of Principles, according to the organization’s website. The statement was revised in 1940 and again in 1970, according to the website, and more than 250 scholarly and professional associations now endorse it.
Rachel Larris, AAUP media and communications strategist, said the organization can redraft its academic freedom statement by joint action, but she said it’s impossible to estimate the likelihood.
Like many universities, OU derived its academic freedom policy from the AAUP’s statement, according to the faculty handbook, which contains a section on the issue. The handbook states that faculty members are “entitled to full freedom in research and publication.”
“As a citizen engaged in a profession that depends upon freedom for its health and integrity, the university teacher has a particular obligation to promote conditions of free inquiry and to further public understanding of academic freedom,” the policy states.
However, faculty should make every attempt not to speak for the university when exercising their freedom, according to the handbook.
“As members of the community, university teachers have the rights and obligations of any citizen,” the policy states. “They measure the urgency of these obligations in the light of their responsibilities … In speaking or acting as private persons, faculty members should avoid creating the impression of speaking or acting for their college or university.”
Shayla Powers, a senior English major at OU, said she was not aware of professors’ freedom of publication until this semester when she read The Daily’s story about McCall.
“I assumed that while (professors) may hold opinions in their personal lives, they would be limited in their ability to publish as representatives of the university,” Powers said. “The students of the university have moral and ethical standards that we are expected to uphold, and I guess I assumed that the professors would be held to those as well.”
She said she understands that universities rely on the free exchange of ideas, but she said professors should uphold the values of the institution.
Amid a perceived attack on academic freedom, more than 30 colleges and universities have formed or reinstated their AAUP chapters within the last year — most recently the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported.
Elwood Madden said she hasn’t participated in any discussions of bringing an AAUP chapter to OU. But she said she and several other professors are members of the organization and participate in regional meetings.
Going forward, Powers said she thinks academic freedom should be scaled back. People must start to draw a line between right and wrong as society progresses, she said.
“I don’t think that academic freedom means that professors or whoever should be able to publish articles that perpetuate stereotypes or prejudices,” Powers said. “We should be better than that by now, especially here at a university that pushes the idea of inclusivity and diversity.”
Powers said she thinks unregulated freedom of publication can do harm, conscious or not, to students.
“As a woman, I don’t want to be taught by a professor that thinks women are inferior to men or anything like that,” Powers said. “Those kinds of beliefs are affecting the education that I pay thousands of dollars for and work extremely hard for, whether they want to acknowledge that or not.”
However, Harper said he has faith that academic freedom will stand the test of time. He said academic freedom may evolve, but it will likely remain embedded in the foundation of universities.
“On a day to day basis, most of us operate in an environment that is so infused with this value that we’re able to endure and benefit from this statement that’s now 78 years old,” Harper said. “In that way, it’s like many of the core values of our constitutional system that ultimately transcend any particular moment and endure challenges that may arise.”