Concerned about academic freedom, ASU professors still make classroom changes

Written by on February 12, 2013 in Documents, Education, People, Region, Top News, Watauga 1 Comment
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A case pitting an Appalachian State University professor against the school’s administration is having a chilling effect on the way some of the university’s professors teach, they said.

Defenders of sociology professor Jammie Price say the university’s actions toward her threaten freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus – threats, they said, that are inhibiting what they say in class and, subsequently, what students can learn. The university’s interpretation of due process has inadvertently created an adversarial relationship between students and professors, some of Price’s supporters contend.

Objections by four students to Price’s comments and actions in an introductory sociology class she taught last March prompted Provost Lori Gonzalez to suspend Price with pay over the spring and summer. Gonzalez also imposed a professional develop plan upon Price – an action that Price is still contesting. Together, the actions have some professors on campus wondering how free they are to teach their students.

Some of those professors, in recent interviews with Carolina Public Press and in comments posted on the Academic Freedom and Due Process at Appstate Facebook page contend that by placing Price on administrative leave against her will, ASU violated due process as laid out in the university’s faculty handbook.

“I’m sure that there are much worse things going on in many other places, but (this) is the worst I’ve seen in my 25 years here at Appalachian,” said Ruth Ann Strickland, a political science and public administration professor. “And it has impacted my teaching and my feelings about my work.”

In documents that defenders of Price have posted on the Facebook page – a page with more than 1,000 members – the university contends its actions against Price are legitimate. A request for comment sent to Gonzalez was forwarded to Hank Foreman, associate vice chancellor for university communications and cultural affairs. In a recent emailed response, Foreman declined to comment directly on Price. The university “is required to treat all personnel matters with the strictest of confidence,” he stated. “Therefore, we are unable to respond to … questions related to specific cases.”

Price case tests policies

The controversy on campus is nearly a year old. It started March 2, 2012, when Price wore a T-shirt to the sociology class in support of a silent protest on campus held in reaction to allegations of sexual assault involving student athletes, according to a report purportedly issued in October by the faculty grievance committee and posted to the Facebook page.

Price’s response to questions about her T-shirt upset a student athlete who walked out of the classroom and complained to an associate athletic director and to the school’s director of equity, diversity and compliance, according to the posted document. The student, a female, considered Price’s comments to be racist and threatening. A second student in the classroom, another student athlete, also complained.

Administrators had arranged a meeting between Price and the students when, five days later, Price showed the class “The Price of Pleasure,” a video that examines the relationship between pornography and the American entertainment industry. A parent of a third student complained. A fourth student also joined that complaint.

The Faculty Due Process Committee, which reviewed the case in May prior to the grievance committee’s review, concluded that Price had been denied due process because she was placed on leave before the first student put her complaint in writing – a violation of university policy, according to documents uploaded to the Facebook site. In October, the faculty grievance committee concluded that, in suspending Price after the students complained, the university misapplied a provision in the faculty handbook that addresses voluntary leave (see the document below). Price was allowed to return to teach the fall 2012 semester and is teaching now.

The grievance committee also concluded that there was no justification for the professional development plan. Chancellor Ken Peacock upheld the imposition of the plan (see the document below). Price has appealed the chancellor’s decision to ASU’s board of trustees.

‘I noticed I was more cautious’

In the meantime, three professors interviewed by Carolina Public Press said they are more cautious about initiating academic discussions that might make students uncomfortable in class.

“One thing we’ve seen with the Jammie Price case is the administration has allowed students to make an end run around the grievance process,” said Sheila Phipps, an associate professor of history who has taught at ASU since 1998. “If we as faculty don’t think that we have the protection of due process, then how can we challenge students?”  

Phipps teaches women’s history and with it, women’s political history. Topics include patriarchy, oppression, abortion and contraception – issues likely to make some students uncomfortable. “Teaching students to think critically is done by discussing issues that are not comfortable for them to discuss necessarily,” she said. “The more I thought about the Jammie Price situation, the more I realize we’re not here to make them comfortable.”

Now she hesitates in class sometimes, she said.

“That might make (students) think I’m uncomfortable with the subject,” she said, “but I am uncomfortable with the fact that it might cause them to be uncomfortable and they might object. So, the delivery has changed, and that might be inhibiting their learning process. I noticed I was more cautious (teaching last summer), and I was not happy with it.”

Strickland teaches a class in public personnel administration. One real-life case she has used in class involves a young police officer who, concerned about his work schedule, repeatedly interrupted a meeting between the outgoing and incoming police chiefs. The new chief used a racial epithet and suspended him. The officer sued on the grounds of racial discrimination.

Because of what happened to Price, Strickland doesn’t mention the case to students anymore. “It’s just impossible, having this in the back of your mind,” she said. “I don’t feel as loose, as comfortable. I’m a lot more measured. When (students) ask questions, I’m not as direct as I might be about expressing an opinion.”

Matthew Robinson, a professor of government and justice studies now in his 16th year at the university, changed his class syllabi, adding material directly from the faculty handbook to make students more aware of what he is allowed and expected to do. The syllabi state how the classes will handle controversial material. They include thoughts about freedom of speech and academic freedom.

“One of the lessons I’ve learned (from the Price affair) is that when students get upset, they often don’t talk to the instructor or the (department) chair about it,” he said. “In this case, they went to their advisors and they took them to the equity office. And once that office gets involved, it’s not a normal procedure. So the faculty member doesn’t have the opportunity to confront the student’s accusation. I’m trying to avoid that.”

Foreman, ASU’s associate vice chancellor for communications, said in his email that the university is “in full support of the protocol for students to work directly with faculty first to address concerns. However, students are not bound to only one method of seeking assistance. If a student is compelled to reach out for assistance in another manner, the university is obligated to follow up on their report.

“While it would always be our hope that issues can be worked out directly between students and faculty, we must realize that some students may find that this is not an option in their particular situation.”

Provost Gonzalez recently announced the creation of an ombudsman position on campus to provide “a neutral, impartial and confidential environment to discuss individual concerns of faculty, staff and students,” she stated in an email to faculty and staff. The office, created largely as a result of “events on campus last year,” will open sometime this semester, she said.

Robinson said he is now “a bit more careful in what I say and how I say it.” That’s especially challenging, he said, given the controversial subjects his classes can encompass, such as the wars on drugs and terror.

“Things like sarcasm, playing the devil’s advocate, challenging students’ deeply held beliefs – things we use in the classroom – I’m hesitant to use them now because I’m afraid they might not pick up on it,” he said. “That diminishes the students’ learning opportunities in the classroom.”

The Price case is a good reminder to him to be objective and factual, he said. But Phipps and Strickland are concerned that instead of creating a neutral situation, the fallout from the Price case might be creating an adversarial one, one that places students and faculty at odds.

“I always thought of it (the learning/teaching experience) as teamwork,” Phipps said. “But if we’re under the threat of the administration not upholding academic freedom and due process, then the students become the adversaries.”

“We should not be perceiving each other as adversaries,” Strickland said. “I don’t think I can give my best if I’m thinking that I must not say anything controversial because it might result in an allegation. I think a lot of professors are thinking that and holding back. I think a lot of people are frightened. They don’t want to be the next victim.”

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About the Author

Paul Clark

Paul Clark is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at paulgclark@charter.net.

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