Suspending Academic Freedom: Suspension as a Major Sanction

I wrote this article that appears in the Fall 2009 issue of Academe, the award winning publication of the Illinois conference of the American Association of University Professors. It analyses the major sanction of suspension that is being applied too broadly in violation of numerous A.A.U.P. documents:

On university and college campuses there is occurring an ever increasing use of suspensions as a sanction against progressive faculty. The American Association of University Professors, while issuing reports on the topic, has not been proactive enough in asserting what its policy is and aggressively defending it. This results in repeated violations of punishment without appropriate due process.

What is frequently forgotten are the narrow and limited circumstances under which a faculty member can be suspended. Suspension from one’s faculty position is a major sanction that must never be unleashed due to external-public pressure on an academic institution. It must never eventuate from anger or an effort to suppress a professor’s free speech or academic freedom. Actually, suspensions, except for extraordinary cases of a threat to public safety, should not be a sanction at all if one evaluates critically the extant literature on this growing phenomenon.

Suspensions can only be meted out, “if immediate harm to the faculty member or others is threatened.” Some administrations use the term, “reassignment to other duties,” as a more charitable and evasive expression of a de facto suspension but that risible term is also explicitly included as encompassing the suspension regime. The A.A.U.P. Policy Documents and Reports, “Redbook,” 10th ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006) reiterates in numerous documents the specific and dramatic circumstances that may trigger a suspension in the United States. The documents are the ninth “1970 Interpretive Comment” of the “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure,” the “1958 Statement on Procedural Standards in Faculty Dismissal Proceedings” and the revised 1999 “Recommended Institutional Regulations on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” While ironically, A.A.U.P. has issued numerous pronouncements on the parameters of such a sanction, it is certainly “soft law” which evades even A.A.U.P. Committee A scrutiny.

Suspensions for extramural utterances, controversial speech, research misconduct, antiwar e-mail, provocative and radical proclamations, alleged non-threatening misconduct and a host of other reasons are inappropriate. Suspensions and reassignments to other duties are frequently meted out without due process. Administrations without faculty input and without convoking a pre-sanction review committee are arbitrarily suspending faculty members. Even faculty units are also recommending suspensions without apparent knowledge of or disregard for A.A.U.P. regulations on this issue. Suspensions frequently serve either as an end or as stop-gap measures until a final resolution of the matter is determined.

Professor Sami al-Arian, a computer scientist at the University of South Florida, is approaching seven years as a political prisoner in the United States due to his race and political ideology in my opinion. Sami al-Arian, a Kuwaiti-born Palestinian, was fired from the University of South Florida by President Judy Lynn Genshaft on February 26, 2003, a mere six-days after a fifty-count indictment was handed down by a federal grand jury. It contained charges of terrorism and using the university as a front for materially supporting an alleged terrorist organization: Palestinian Islamic Jihad. A federal jury found him not guilty on many counts and was hung on several others in 2005. At various stages, culminating in Professor al-Arian’s dismissal, the University of South Florida used extremely questionable arguments and tactics to coerce a controversial and ethically outspoken tenured professor who had resided in the United States since 1975.

Al-Arian’s speech was labeled “disruptive.” President Genshaft accused al-Arian, with Orwellian doublespeak, of having “repeatedly abused his position.” He was denounced for not issuing a disclaimer that his remarks on television and other fora did not represent those of the university. Such a charge is usually selectively applied against speech an administration finds objectionable or embarrassing. Professors rarely claim to speak for an institution and are not required to issue self-effacing disclaimers whenever they speak, write an op-ed, publish an article, appear as a source in a news story and post a statement on the Internet. Certainly academicians who avoid controversy and who eschew social activism are NEVER required to issue formal disclaimers attendant to their speech.

Prior to being fired by the University of South Florida, al-Arian endured a de facto fourteen-month suspension—cloaked in the name of a paid leave of absence–imposed by then President Betty Castor, who later ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for a Senate seat. This lengthy sanction exceeded any reasonable argumentation that resumption of his professional responsibilities posed any claimed threat of immediate harm. Universities cannot engage in a heckler’s veto and use the possibility of disruption caused by a faculty member’s exercise of free speech as an excuse to silence that speech. This is America that claims to defend free speech which is meaningless if it only permits non-provocative, non-challenging discourse.

Ward Churchill was fired by the University of Colorado in June 2006 and won a legal battle in a wrongful termination law suit that claimed the severance of his continuous tenure resulted from his “little Eichmanns” statements concerning the victims of the 9/11 attacks. However, Denver District Court Judge Larry Naves refused to reinstate the professor this past July.

What is forgotten, however, was that the tenured full-professor of ethnic studies was suspended and that the faculty was complicit in this action. One of the numerous university units that examined the professor’s writings to determine if research misconduct took place was the Privilege and Tenure Committee. While it did not recommend dismissal, they did recommend suspension as a major sanction without any evidence or even allegation that the professor was a threat to others or that retention of the professor’s full academic rights would cause “harm” in a physical and immediate sense to the university.

Even prior to his firing, Mr. Churchill was removed from the classroom for the entire 2006-2007 academic year in what amounted to a paid suspension. While I personally found much of his research antics to be beyond the pale: in particular his ghostwriting articles and then citing them as third-party sources for his works, due process must be enforced. The investigations into his academic writings was inspired by the failure of his critics to fire him for his 9/11 comments. Yet pending a final judgment on the merits of the University of Colorado’s charges against him, his suspension constituted a material violation of his rights under the First Amendment and numerous previously cited documents of the A.A.U.P.

While no one can reasonably argue that suspensions and reassignment to other duties should never be imposed, the proliferation of these major sanctions is troubling and represents a clear and present danger to academic freedom. Academicians need to be aware that as the tide of repression continues to accelerate in this nation, our students’ capacity to develop critical-thinking skills is gravely threatened and the closing of the American mind is at hand.

Peter N. Kirstein is professor of history at St. Xavier University and vice president of A.A.U.P.-Illinois Conference. He is the author of “Challenges to Academic Freedom Since 9/11,” in Matthew Morgan, ed., The Impact of 9/11 and The New Legal Landscape: The Day That Changed Everything (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

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