Although problems exist, the face of academic freedom in the years following Sept. 11 is not as grim as it could be, the feature lecturer said during a discussion Thursday evening at MU’s School of Law.
The panel discussion is the first event in MU’s Difficult Dialogues Initiative, a campaign to increase discussion of sensitive topics on university campuses.
The initiative is funded by a $100,000 grant from the Ford Foundation.
“We’re very pleased that this Difficult Dialogues project is under way,” said Chancellor Brady Deaton, who moderated the discussion.
The event’s featured lecturer, Robert O’Neil, was optimistic about the academic outlook.
“Things have turned out considerably less ominous than most of us would have anticipated,” O’Neil said. “Much of what we feared on Sept. 12 and the days and weeks after hasn’t materialized.”
O’Neil said that many expected the academic community to turn in on itself, placing faculty and students at odds with restrictive school administrators.
However, he said, in most cases, university administrations have been remarkably supportive of faculty members. This cooperation affords teachers room to express opinions.
“There’s been no shortage of outspoken university professors,” O’Neil said.
However, he said, several states have passed legislation which could infringe upon university professors’ ability to speak freely.
For example, a law passed in Ohio requires all prospective state employees, including teachers, to pass a loyalty oath. O’Neil said the questions in the oath are extremely vague and open to a good deal of interpretation, making them very difficult to answer to the state’s satisfaction.
Vicky Riback Wilson, a former member of the Missouri House of Representatives and a discussion panelist, said that the Missouri General Assembly has attempted to dictate what was best for the academic environment.
In an incident shortly after Sept. 11, student reporters at KOMU/Channel 8 chose to wear patriotic lapel pins while on air, a practice which the journalism school had prohibited for years.
The state legislature ruled that the students should be allowed to wear the pins.
Riback Wilson said that at first the university forced students not to wear the pins, but the state later threatened the school with budget cuts and MU capitulated.
“When they start to cut the budget by $500,000, it gets people’s attention,” Riback Wilson said.
She cited another incident in which the state legislature attempted to dictate how Missouri universities should offer tenure, specifically to a professor who published a book on a topic with which many of the legislators disagreed.
Riback Wilson said such incidents hamper the autonomy of the university system, which, in turn, abridges academic freedom.
She said that in such situations professors are wary of stimulating discussion and students do not feel free to express their opinions.
Paul Miller, a professor of rural sociology and a member of the discussion panel, said that to maintain a superior higher education system, universities must educate the public about the perils of abridgement of academic freedoms.
Universities must also broaden public understanding of how academic freedom can be strengthened.