April 16, 2009

Movement for Academic Freedom Stirs Campus

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While much of the history surrounding the Straight Takeover of ’69 focuses on students, the dramatic confrontation and the events that led up to it illuminate a pressing issue regarding professorial rights as well.
In 1968, the economics department in Goldwin Smith was taken over, a precursor to the Straight Takeover that would gain national attention almost exactly a year later. Many of the same student members of the AAS who took over the Straight took over the economics department primarily because they disputed the purportedly racist lectures of Father Michael McPhelin, who taught Economics 103: Economic Development. McPhelin lectured about the poor in America, occasionally implying that they lacked the necessary drive and ambition to elevate their social statuses.
Even though McPhelin did not specifically state that by “poor” he was referring to mostly African-American individuals, some of the blacks in his class interpreted his remarks as such, accusing him of racism.
The students argued that while his remarks were not indicative of personal racism, they were indicative of institutional racism.
According to the book Cornell ’69 by Donald Downs, on April 4, three students walked to the front of the classroom while McPhelin was lecturing and began reading a statement about their grievances with the lecturer’s teaching. As one of the students read the statement, McPhelin attempted to talk over them by asking the class if they wanted to hear the statement. While the student continued to read the statement, McPhelin tried to combat their recital by encouraging the class to begin singing the Star-Spangled Banner. Amidst the escalating chaos, McPhelin finally decided to cancel class. Later that day, after gathering 50 to 60 additional students, the AAS members decided to take over the economics department. The students said they would not leave until their three demands were met: an apology from McPhelin, the University’s dismissal of McPhelin and a replacement black professor to teach the course from their perspective. While eventually the students left Goldwin Smith with their demands unmet, it was a chaotic and tense scene. However, it clearly did not alleviate all concerns, as the Straight Takeover still occurred a year later.
McPhelin retained his job after the affair, but questions regarding academic freedom on Cornell’s campus moved to the forefront.
According to Downs, McPhelin was quoted as saying that he was beginning to have to severely constrict himself in terms of what he could say in his lectures.
“I began to have the sense that I couldn’t go into class and say … ‘poverty,’ or talk about its consequences, or talk about slums, it seems, without his hearing that I was talking about black poverty,” McPhelin said, according to Cornell ’69.
When the Straight was seized the following year, professors began to worry about more than just offending students in their lectures. Some professors’ lives were threatened by the individuals who took over the Straight.
“Before this is over James Perkins, Allan Sindler and Clinton Rossiter are going to die in the gutter like dogs,” Tom Jones ’69 was quoted as saying in The Sun.
Sindler, chair of the government department, and Walter Berns, government, resigned after the Straight takeover according to a previous Sun article. Additionally, 15 professors in the history and government departments signed a petition to the president stating they would “cease normal teaching activity” until the time when they no longer felt constricted or threatened because of the weapons on campus.
Even though the majority of professors were not personally threatened, a larger portion conceivably still felt the effects of the protest. Professors had to be more careful not only about how they presented material, but which material they chose to present.
A Cornell survey was conducted in 1969 by Douglas Williams Associates where students, faculty, administrators, alumni and trustees were asked to assess the role of academic freedom. In the survey analysis, Williams claimed that while there were those who claimed that professors who felt restricted in what they could teach were “thin-skinned,” there were still “others [who] believe that at the least there has been an influence in the direction of ‘self-censorship’ in what some people are willing to include in their lectures.”
According to Prof. Eric Cheyfitz, English, it is vital for professors to bring up contentious issues in their lectures because this is “the heart of education.”
“Academic freedom is important because it protects the rights of faculty to pursue and publish their research and to teach without fear of reprisal. The primary protection of this right is tenure. The implications if professors feel restricted in their speech is that the purpose of education, free and open debate about critical issues, will be corrupted,” Cheyfitz stated in an e-mail.
Tenure was established as a means of securing professors’ jobs so they would feel more inclined to address potentially controversial issues in their research or classes. According to a study done by Stephen Ceci, Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology; Prof. Wendy Williams, human development; and University of Cambridge Prof. Katrin Mueller-Johnson, however, tenured professors are not actually more inclined to “teach unpopular courses, research controversial topics and whistle-blow wrong-doing.” While most faculty stated that they believed full professors were more likely to exercise their academic freedom than were lower-ranked professors, when asked to evaluate their own potential behavior, higher ranked professors did not indicate more of a willingness to engage in said behaviors. The study examined a random sampling of 1,004 professors from across the country.
Cheyfitz has been working at Cornell since 2003 and stated that no issues regarding academic freedom have occurred since he began working at the University.
“It is not the business of the University to police the speech of its faculty, either in the classroom or in publications. It is the business of the University to protect that speech,” Cheyfitz stated.
Prof. Richard Burkhauser, policy analysis and management, reiterated the importance of providing students with an array of different viewpoints in the academic setting.
“It is the diversity of ideas that students are challenged with at Cornell that makes it such a great University. In my view, that is what universities are about and what makes the four years that undergraduates spend here worth their parents’ money. It is the basis of academic freedom,” Burkhauser stated.
“But to be an effective teacher of core ideas, it is critical to understand what kind of language is effective and what kind of language gets in the way. So I have learn[ed] to be more sensitive about issues of race and gender over the last 40 years than I was in 1968. Being more sensitive does not prevent me from talking about the difference between positive and normative statements and the need to understand the difference between the two in making arguments. It also doesn’t stop me from distinguishing between correlation and causation,” Burkhauser stated.
Referencing the example of McPhelin, Burkhauser stated that there is evidence that shows that a “disproportionate share of the poor are African American.” While he can make this claim in his class and discuss the correlation between these two variables, Burkhauser said that extending his lecture to discussing causation would be a much more contentious issue that could potentially offend people.
“I’d be much more careful about making such causal arguments,” Burkhauser stated.
McPhelin was not fired over the controversy that stemmed from his lecture. According to Downs, his display of institutional racism was more about highlighting the problems with the University as a whole than with this specific professor. While McPhelin could have been more tactful and considerate in his presentation of some of these ideas, Downs claimed that part of where he went wrong was in his handling of the controversy and his quelling of the debate between himself and the African-American students in his class.
One possible tactic in addressing some contentious issues would be to give equal time to discuss contrasting sides of the same debate.
However, Prof. Paul Sawyer, English, does not believe that giving time to multiple perspectives is always necessary.
“[It is] legitimate to emphasize one side of a debate in a syllabus if that side is the subject of a course,” Sawyer said. “I don’t think that kind of balance is always required.” Sawyer mentioned that if a class is focused on Karl Marx, the class would not allot equal time to discussing neo-liberalism. However, multiple perspectives and viewpoints “should always be part of a free and rich response to the course.”
Downs included a quote from free speech theorist Jonathan Rauch in his book: “We all benefit enormously from living in a society which is rich with prejudices, because strong opinions, however biased or wrongheaded, energize debate … The notion that error is never a crime — [and] may indeed be an inspiration — frees us to think imaginatively.”
The McPhelin affair emphasized the tension between a professor’s academic freedom and a prevailing movement for racial justice in academia. In 1968, the students interrupted a class and prevented learning, took over the economics department and assaulted two University police officers, yet they were not charged. The immediate measures of the University policy indicated a priority of reconciling the aggrieved students rather than strictly maintaining McPhelin’s academic freedom.
The case highlighted the need for professors to use discretion when tackling controversial or sensitive issues.
Sawyer said that while professors have the right to present personal opinions in the classroom, “they should be careful that their comments do not interfere with the learning atmosphere of a classroom by marginalizing or disrespecting their students as persons or thinkers.”
“At the same time, like all humans, professors can have blindnesses of their own, as has been the case historically with racial and gender identity, for example. That’s why we need dialogue, which is important even when painful.”