Campus Activism, Academic Freedom, and the AAUP

What the AAUP can do to support student activism.
By Emily M. S. Houh

On July 19, 2015, Samuel DuBose, a forty-three-year- old black resident of one of the many neighborhoods bordering the University of Cincinnati’s uptown campus, was shot and killed during a traffic stop by University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing, who had initially pulled DuBose over for a missing front license plate. When DuBose was unable to produce his driver’s license upon the officer’s request, Tensing asked DuBose to remove his seatbelt. DuBose declined, stating that he had done nothing wrong. Moments later, Tensing discharged his service weapon and shot DuBose in the head. DuBose, still sitting in the driver’s seat of the car, died almost immediately.

The entire incident, like so many similar ones before it, was captured on video, on Tensing’s body camera as well as those of two other university police officers who had arrived on the scene as backup. And as with so many other videos, the footage shows clearly that DuBose was unarmed and physically nonconfrontational prior to being shot. We could now add to the growing list of gruesome videos of unarmed black men being killed by police officers—a list that includes Oscar Grant in Oakland, Eric Garner in Staten Island, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Harris in Tulsa, Walter Scott in North Charleston, and John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio, to name just a few— Sam DuBose in Cincinnati. Here in the Queen City, though, unlike in some of the other cities mentioned, Ray Tensing was indicted by the county prosecutor just ten days later for the murder of DuBose. The university also terminated Tensing’s employment. Although temporarily relieved, we steadied ourselves for whether and how the university would account for the death of DuBose.

The Student Response

Almost immediately, a group of black undergraduate leaders emerged as our “first responders.” Calling themselves “#TheIrate8”—referring to “the fact that black students comprise 8% of UC”—they quickly pulled together an ambitious plan of action. The Irate 8’s website launched on August 31 just as students were returning to campus for the fall term. Their stated mission was “to raise awareness of the experiences of Black students at the University of Cincinnati, and how they connect with the #BlackLivesMatter movement nationally.” The group’s mission statement additionally stated, “We are also moving to reform some of the institutionalized policies that result in a negative and unsafe experience for a number of Black students on the University of Cincinnati Campus.”

Social media campaigns quickly followed, and videos created by the Irate 8 documenting the experiences of black students at UC and exposing its legacy of institutional racism soon went viral through Facebook, Twitter, and other outlets. By late September, the Irate 8 had successfully planned and rolled out “Sam DuBose Week,” which featured a community forum, a “privilege walk” (an exercise where participants identify their group-based privileges), special performances by UC’s Black Arts Collaborative, a “know your rights” session, and a fish-fry fundraiser. Only a couple of weeks later, “#TheIrate8 Teach-In,” where many faculty members taught sessions and provided syllabus material, was held on UC’s central campus green. All of this work and organizing put the Irate 8 on firm ground to present to the university on October 15 its “List of 10 Demands.” In addition to its call for the creation of a required diversity and inclusion curriculum, expanded financial resources for the recruitment and retention of black students, and significantly increased hiring of black faculty and staff, the Irate 8 demanded that students of color and other underrepresented students be guaranteed representation in student government, that black student enrollment be doubled within three years, and that the university divest from the for-profit prison industry and establish a socially responsible investment committee. The critiques embedded in the Irate 8’s list, as well as in the programming that preceded it, were substantive and structural. That the members of the group were following in the footsteps of past student movements by putting their futures on the line to demand institutional change was truly inspiring.

The Faculty Response

For many faculty members, the work of the Irate 8 was also reaffirming and heartening. Based on my own experiences since becoming a professor in 2000 and as a student activist in the mid-1990s at the University of Michigan Law School (where I joined my first union, the Graduate Employees’ Organization), I had long ago concluded that effective student organizing is central to making universities meaningfully accountable for their unjust practices and policies. As I see it, the job of faculty is not to lead change efforts at universities, although we of course must participate actively in advocating for and making such change, but to provide our students with the intellectual and practical tools that in turn will make it possible for them to lead and transform. Members of the Irate 8 were showing us just how important it is for our students and future leaders to be responsibly and critically educated. Thus, like many of my colleagues, I wanted to get involved in a way that would preserve the students’ role as the primary change-seekers and strategists around race at UC.

But how and in what capacity could I do so? I consider myself a critical race feminist, by which I mean that my work looks both at how legal doctrine, policy, and theory have been used to perpetuate material and discursive inequalities based on race, gender, sex, and class and at how the law can be used to eliminate those inequalities. As such, I wanted the university to call on those of us whose research focuses on race, gender, sex, and class to bring our expertise to the table. At the same time, I feared being coopted by the institution’s immediate efforts at damage control. My ambivalence about what to do was for a short time paralyzing. But I decided that at the very least I could reorient my fall 2015 critical race theory (CRT) seminar to focus on what had happened in July just half a mile from the law school. So, in lieu of the research paper I typically require, I had my students put their close readings of foundational CRT texts to use in the collective development of a class project focused on the shooting death of Sam DuBose and its impact on our communities.

Hungry to put theory into practice, my students went far beyond what was expected of them; they worked harder and more collaboratively than any other group of students I have ever taught. After several weeks of reading, discussion, and brainstorming, and inspired particularly by leading CRT scholar Richard Delgado’s influential “Storytelling stories from those directly affected by UC’s policing and other practices, the students spent a great deal of time talking with several community members, including residents of the neighborhood where Sam DuBose had lived and was killed, high school students at the predominantly black public high school directly across the street from the law school (which itself anchors one corner of the university’s uptown campus), small business owners catering to both university students and neighborhood residents, and, of course, their university peers.

At the end of the semester, our class was given the opportunity to make a short presentation at a public meeting of an ad hoc community council that the university had convened soon after DuBose’s death. The students’ project presentation was well received by many, despite our collective anxiety about whether university administrators would be open to hearing a “counter-narrative.” I was proud of my students, and my only further hope was that the work they had done in the class had given them a deeper understanding of why it is so important to ground practice in theory.

As my CRT students plugged away at their project, other faculty members across campus were trying to figure out how we, in our own ways, could support the efforts of the Irate 8 and call for change. Our initial individual responses were many but dispersed and uncoordinated. I, for one, felt stymied by the prospect of organizing a cohesive, collaborative, and effective faculty-driven campaign. Less daunted was Stephanie Sadre-Orafai, then an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Anthropology, who, inspired by the Irate 8, began seeking out concerned colleagues both in her department and in the larger College of Arts and Sciences for ideas, advice, and help. By mid-September, Sadre-Orafai had organized a Department of Anthropology Facebook photo series in support of the Irate 8, which over the course of the semester became so successful that she and her mostly junior departmental colleagues had to take turns monitoring and handling the vitriolic comments that would appear on a daily basis in response to expressed faculty support for the Irate 8.

Throughout this time, Sadre-Orafai was preparing to apply for tenure. Additionally, she was a founding codirector of the College of Arts and Sciences Critical Visions Certificate, a joint project with the university’s renowned College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning that aims to “teach . . . students how to effectively combine critical theory and social analysis with art, media, and design practice.” Sadre-Orafai’s teaching, scholarship, and service are explicitly critical, both in the academic and institutional sense. Many of us know the risks involved in faculty activism, especially for junior faculty, and Sadre-Orafai’s courage in undertaking this work, particularly her support of the Irate 8, can’t be overstated.

Indeed, the Irate 8 and faculty members like Sadre-Orafai effectively cleared a way for faculty to meaningfully support our students in their efforts to demand change from the university. Just as important, this work demonstrated to me why we, as faculty, must continue to fight to educate our students rather than simply strive to make them “competent” and “practice-ready.” In order to do so successfully, faculty must support the AAUP’s work to vigorously protect academic freedom and, perhaps, even push the Association to expand upon what academic freedom means.

Academic Freedom

The AAUP’s principal statements on academic freedom are collected in Policy Documents and Reports, widely known as the Redbook, now in its eleventh edition. Several of these documents speak to academic freedom in the context of personnel actions: appointments, reappointments, and dismissals. Some speak to “extramural utterances” and political activity (also of the extramural type). Yet others address academic freedom as it relates to specific teaching-related issues, like how we choose our course materials, the assignment of course grades, and student appeals. In 2007, the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure issued a report on “freedom in the classroom” to counter a wave of attacks on the professoriate for allegedly “indoctrinating, not educating” our students; supposedly depriving them of perspectival “balance” or “diversity” of views in the classroom; creating hostile classroom environments through our purported “intolerance” of our students’ religious, political, or socioeconomic perspectives; and “persistently interject[ing] material, especially of a political or ideological character, irrelevant to the subject of instruction.”

Because I teach and write in the areas of critical race theory and critical race feminism, fields that still face some resistance within the academy and a lot of resistance by the mainstream, I am grateful for these statements and reports. For the same reason, though, I am also deeply sympathetic to critiques from the left of Committee A’s role during the early and mid-twentieth century in what amounted to the expungement of radicals and Communist Party members from college and university faculties. It seems to me that especially with respect to the kind of faculty work that might ruffle institutional, political, or ideological feathers, academic freedom must be more specifically, but not narrowly, defined.

Why is this the case? Speaking from experience, Sadre-Orafai and I—both of us women of color and critical scholars—individually encountered to some degree, from varying sources, resistance to or skepticism about our attempts to support and give voice to student concerns. And while this was somewhat disheartening to me, I had already been tenured for several years, so it didn’t affect in any significant way my ability, willingness, or desire to stay involved. Sadre-Orafai, in contrast, who was still an untenured assistant professor in fall 2015, had a lot more to lose. Yet, she, along with many of her similarly situated and like-minded colleagues across campus, pressed energetically on.

I have no doubt that many of my cherished tenured colleagues across the country, even ones who themselves identify as scholar-teacher-activists, would have advised Sadre-Orafai that if she wanted to do something to support the Irate 8, she should simply do so within the confines of her scholarship and research, at least until she got tenure. And this would have been good advice at many, if not most, institutions, for in one essential regard faculty workers are the same as all workers around the country: choosing to criticize (or even support critics of) our employers can often mean putting our livelihoods on the line. I believe that neither Sadre-Orafai nor I could have engaged with student activists the way we did last fall, free from material negative consequence (Sadre- Orafai has since been granted tenure), were it not for the very real protection afforded us by the principle of academic freedom.

In this regard, it’s fortunate that we are faculty members at UC. Our AAUP chapter, itself part of a strong Ohio AAUP conference, has been representing faculty and collectively bargaining with the university over the terms of our employment since 1974. “Academic freedom” and “faculty governance” are in the water here, at least if you’re an informed and active chapter member. I myself didn’t hesitate last year to turn to our chapter leadership for help when I was concerned, no matter how unnecessarily, about my CRT course. Our excellent chapter staff consistently provided me with sound advice and encouragement. Yet, when I later opened the Redbook to read for myself how the AAUP defines academic freedom, I became momentarily unglued. Looking at the language, I could easily make an argument for how the activities in which, for example, Sadre-Orafai and I had engaged were protected under the articulated principles of academic freedom. But having been trained as a lawyer, I almost as easily could have made an argument that they weren’t (though I’ve concluded that, ultimately, the former position would win out).

But in that brief moment of panic—as I considered the overwhelming whiteness of AAUP membership at UC (and, I suspect, at organized campuses across the country) and the complicated and long history of racism in American labor movements—it became clear to me that the AAUP must do some deeper thinking about, and must take a strong position on, academic freedom as it relates specifically to faculty-supported student activism, especially when such activism concerns issues of race, gender, and sex inequality in higher education.

For example, AAUP members could work through relevant standing committees to develop a sustained recruiting strategy aimed at bringing more diverse faculty into the Association’s ranks. Doing so would require, of course, an initial analysis of how current policies and position statements might adversely, though unintentionally, affect “outsider” faculty (people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals). Various standing committees could also research, collect, and publish best practices for supporting graduate students whose research and teaching focus on the violent and unequal reality of American social, economic, and political life. They could put together toolkits and workshops dedicated to supporting faculty who work with activist students and develop materials to educate undergraduates about how and why our core values of academic freedom and faculty governance are essential to their education.

These ideas are just that: ideas. They are suggested in a constructive spirit, to encourage the AAUP’s leadership and our general membership to think more seriously and concretely about how to make our organization and movement not only more diverse and inclusive but also more engaged and equal. The AAUP must stand with “outsider” faculty, now more than ever, as we engage in this work with and for our students. Indeed, the future of higher education and of our country literally depend upon it.   

Emily M. S. Houh is the Gustavus Henry Wald Professor of the Law and Contracts at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, where she also codirects the Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice. She serves on the Associates Council of the University of Cincinnati AAUP chapter as a representative of the College of Law.

Further Reading

Readers unfamiliar with the DuBose case can learn more about developments from the following sources:

• The Cincinnati Enquirer’s coverage of the “Shooting Death of Sam DuBose,” collected at -of-samuel-dubose

• The Guardian’s coverage, collected at https://

• The independent review commissioned by the University of Cincinnati’s Office of General Counsel, available at /uc/safety-reform/documents/Kroll%20Report%20 of%20Investigation%208.31.2015.pdf