Panelists discuss academic freedom

Sandy Archila

Academic freedom, a topic recently causing heated local and national legal debate, was discusssed at the first two days of the Defining Academic Freedom Conference on at the Sierra Center.

“Academic freedom is crucial for any society that wants to continue to get better,” said keynote speaker, Evan Gerstmann, chair of the Political Science department at Loyola Marymount University.

Gerstmann helped kick off the first of a three-part series on academic freedom April 18, sponsored by the Center for Innovative and Engaged Learning Opportunities. The second installment of the conference, titled, “Academic freedom now: Climate and Threats in a Changing World” was held April 19, and the third is scheduled for today at 3:30 p.m. on the second floor of the Sierra Center. “Teaching and learning now; Creating A Safe and Open Classroom Climate,” is the topic of the title of the third discussion.

Gerstmann said there have been several cases in which professors have been fired for voicing their ideas and opinions on subjects while outside of the classroom. He said that in the past, professors have been disciplined or fired for voicing their opinions on subjects that major donors or the university did not agree with.

Several colleges and universities across the country have created speech codes that are designed to punish what university officials deem “questionable language,” Gerstmann said.

The Ventura County Community College District Board of Trustees has considered a proposal to amend their policy on academic freedom. The new policy would encourage faculty members to be “conscientious” when discussing non-course related topics that they introduce in class.

According to the Board Policy Manual, “the teacher is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing his or her subject, but should be careful not to introduce into the teaching controversial matter which has no relation to the subject.”

Such guidelines on academic freedom have caused concern among several professors.

“There are a number of issues that are prevalent in society right now,” said Elizabeth Berry, communication studies professor at CSUN.

Laura Quezada, junior women’s studies major, said the government and universities should not limit or prohibit free speech. “I don’t think that the classroom should be a place where professors preach their personal views on stuff, but to some degree they should be allowed to discuss new ideas, current events without fear of repercussions from the university,” Quezada said. “That’s what school is about. We come here to learn and to hear new ideas.”

Gerstmann said universities are one of the last voices of dissent and that without universities, a real marketplace of ideas would cease to exist.

“It is important to support academic freedom in its most robust form without concession to the ‘left’ or the ‘right’,” Gerstmann said.

Sandy Achila can be reached at sandy.archila@csun.edu