State of the Profession: Freedom in the Classroom—and in the Trump Era

By Michael Bérubé

A week after the election of Donald Trump, over a hundred students and faculty members at my institution, Pennsylvania State University, met to talk about What It All Meant. Tensions ran high, and there was a heated argument over whether misogyny or white supremacism was primarily to blame for Trump’s freakish win (we would not know for another week or two that he performed no better in the popular vote than did Michael Dukakis in 1988).

At one point, the moderator turned to me—I was not on the program, just sitting in the back of the auditorium taking it all in—and introduced me to the crowd as someone who knew a thing or two about academic freedom. Was it legitimate, people wanted to know, for a professor to talk about the election in a class full of traumatized (or, conversely, energized) students? Where were the limits of acceptable speech in the classroom, or in extramural forums like this one?

The question about extramural speech was very much on the minds of my colleagues, because the university had issued a new policy on participation in electoral campaigns just a few weeks earlier. It was boilerplate stuff, mostly drawn from the 501(c)(3) language governing tax-exempt nonprofit institutions, but because of the timing—and because of widespread confusion among my colleagues—people wondered whether the administration wasn’t issuing a preemptive warning to anyone who might speak out against Trump. (Indeed, one colleague maintained that screening a film about climate change and hosting a subsequent panel that contained no climate-change deniers would constitute a violation of the policy.)

I pulled up the AAUP’s joint 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure on my computer and cited the relevant document in the Penn State faculty handbook. “Of course any faculty member with expertise in the history of race relations in America can bring that knowledge, and the substance of her own work, into the classroom,” I said, referencing the work of some of my African American colleagues in the room. “That’s not a violation of anything; it’s precisely what they were hired to do. And in the wake of a cataclysmic global event, whether an election or a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, professors can certainly check on students and see where they are. September 11, the Paris attacks, earthquakes in Haiti—there’s no question that we can respond to these things in class. There are two things we can’t do: we can’t totally derail a class so that suddenly an introduction to biology becomes a course devoted to analyzing white nationalism, and we can never penalize a student for disagreeing with us. We must treat all our students with respect, we must engage them in good faith, and we cannot go around haranguing them about Trump in an art studio.”

There is, however, a small but important omission in Penn State’s policy on academic freedom in the classroom. Our policy states, “The faculty member is normally bound not to take advantage of his/her position by introducing into the classroom provocative discussions of irrelevant subjects not within the field of his/her study.” Though this language tracks the 1940 Statement reasonably closely, I would prefer that the second sentence incorporate the AAUP’s 1970 Interpretive Comments by saying that faculty members must not persistently introduce provocative discussions of irrelevant subjects.

The administrators with whom I have spoken do not object to my proposed change. But I have run into resistance from faculty colleagues, one of whom insisted, nonsensically, that the word persistently would allow a professor to introduce different kinds of irrelevant material in every class. Another professor at the post- Trump event wanted to know if it was kosher to relate the material of her course to current events.

That was when I realized that it is probably time for the AAUP to promote its Freedom in the Classroom report again, ten years after it was first released. Granted, that report was written for a very different occasion—David Horowitz’s advocacy, in many state legislatures, of an “Academic Bill of Rights” designed to shield conservative students from the views of liberal and leftist professors. But in the age of Trump, the Horowitz campaign is beginning to look like the good old days. Over the next few years, we need to remind our administrations—and, perhaps even more urgently, our colleagues—what academic freedom in the classroom means. Otherwise, I fear, we will encourage a very dangerous confusion and passivity in the professoriate at a critical moment in history.

Michael Bérubé is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University and a member of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.