After scrutiny, MU Faculty Council recommends revision of 'academic freedom' policy

Thursday, October 6, 2011 | 8:18 p.m. CDT; updated 10:15 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 6, 2011

COLUMBIA — A policy proposed to protect classroom discussion needs to be revised so it's more clear, according to a recommendation from MU's Faculty Council.

The council's recommendation for the "Policy on Academic Freedom, Course Discussion and Privacy" will go to the University of Missouri System.

Excerpt of proposed policy

"To foster a safe environment for learning, the unauthorized copying, editing, and redistribution of recordings of statements or comments in the course in any form are prohibited without the written permission of the faculty engaged in the course. Unauthorized copying or distribution of such materials is a violation of academic standards and may violate copyright laws and/or privacy rights."

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It is unclear what the system will do with that recommendation. But Faculty Council Chairman Harry Tyrer said he suspects that because of the volume and quality of comments at the council meeting Thursday, the system will take them under consideration.

Before the meeting, council member Leona Rubin said the policy is intended to protect classroom academic freedom and to ensure that faculty and students feel comfortable engaging in open dialogue in the classroom. The proposal is motivated in part, Rubin said, by the biased editing of lectures given last spring by labor professors at UM campuses in Kansas City and St. Louis.

The proposed policy would have prohibited the distribution of recordings of class comments and discussions, but some faculty members and staff have raised concerns that the policy is overreaching as written and that its language could be more precise. 

"It's a solution seeking a problem, and there just isn't a problem," Mike McKean, associate professor of convergence journalism, said in an interview.

Dean Mills, dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, said he understands the issues that led to the policy but has concerns with the way it is written now.

"This is one of those cases in which the proposed cure is worse than the disease," Mills said in an interview.

At the meeting, several members offered similar sentiments, calling the proposal's language confusing and suggesting the key to clearing it up is to make it more specific. Several also suggested including the issue under already-existing academic honesty policies or providing faculty some kind of protective language that can be put on course syllabi.

The ability to put protective language in each class's syllabus would give teachers the chance to warn students up front about disciplinary actions for unauthorized use of class materials or comments, Marty Walker, director of administrative services for the College of Engineering, said in an earlier interview.

The idea could be along the same lines as warnings given about video and audio recorders before concerts, he said.

"Students are students; they're young," Walker said. "You have to look at the situation and how it (the policy) should be applied."

At the meeting, council member Jonathan "Vanya" Krieckhaus, associate professor of political science, said he feels strongly that the classroom should be a protected space where students feel safe expressing their opinion.

"We should provide some protection for our students," Krieckhaus said. "I just don't know how to do it."

In April, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted videos of lectures by Judy Ancel, director of the Institute of Labor Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and University of Missouri-St. Louis professor Don Giljum. The videos appeared to show the professors endorsing union violence and intimidation tactics in their lectures to a joint-campus Intro to Labor Studies course.

Investigations from both schools concluded that the videos had been heavily edited to take the lecturer's words out of context, at points even editing clips from various class sessions together to appear as one thought.

Rubin, associate professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine, said this incident and others like it inspired the policy.

"The goal is to ensure faculty, but mostly students, have the safety and security to engage in any open dialogue in the classroom without fear of it being remixed or edited out of context," Rubin said. "It was not written to prevent students from taping or sharing information but from intentionally giving it to someone with the intent to defame or alter it in an inappropriate manner."

Without a policy in place, Rubin and Tyrer maintain the university may have no recourse against inappropriate conduct with lecture recordings that twist student or faculty comment in the classroom.

"The concern here is to try to provide a means to provide protection to students," Tyrer said before the meeting. "Right now, there is no mechanism available to the university to do that."

In the end, the council agreed the policy needs to be reconsidered and the language rewritten to clear up the concerns faculty brought against the proposal, including making the policy more focused and specific.

Tyrer, professor of electrical and computer engineering, said after the meeting that he will pass along notes and comments from the discussion to the UM System. Tyrer said he also will request that the issue be put on the Intercampus Faculty Council agenda.

"As long as there's concern, and as long as there's worry about this, we'll continue discussing it until we arrive at a reasonable consensus," Tyrer said.

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