Free speech becoming absent from higher education

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There is a dangerous trend occurring in universities around the country. It’s looming in academia and threatening to become a plague outside the world of education.

This is the danger of silence.

More than in any other environment, debate and discussion should be taking place at universities. After all, universities should be the one place where ideas should be free to roam, be discussed and debated, repudiated or adopted. Instead, university administrators around the country are moving toward a dangerous policy of silencing any kind of discussion that might ignite controversy, regardless of how insignificant or earth shattering the discussion might be.

While trying to maintain a Disney-type image of complacent fantasy at a university level, administrators around the country avoid any controversy that might leave their sacred learning institutions looking like anything other than “the happiest place(s) on Earth.”

As a result, proposals that look to limit our freedom of speech have sprung up at many institutions. At face value, these proposals seem to have our best interests in mind, given cute titles like “Academic Bill of Rights,” “Students’ Bill of Rights,” or “Classroom Bill of Rights.”

And it is not only students who are threatened by these proposed limits on speech. Often, it’s professors, the same individuals who are meant to stimulate our minds and make us question our surroundings.

Several “Bill of Rights” proposals around the country, being marketed as protections allowing students to maintain their own beliefs, are really gag orders imposed on professors. These proposals claim that by discussing controversial topics, professors are imposing their own views on students. Yet what student leaves a university with the same convictions and character with which he or she entered the institution?

To suggest that students’ rights are being infringed by discussion in the classroom is absurd. Students are supposed to question their convictions, listen to opinions that do not match their own, evaluate the information, and make their assessments. Instead, these proposals seek to impose silence upon universities.

This silence is not only an infringement on our First Amendment rights, but also creates an environment of intolerability for ideas other than our own.

But university faculty and staff are used to this kind of “omerta,” or law of silence, imposed on them. University administrators do not want their actions questioned, and they use persuasive means to achieve the desired image.

If a faculty member has not achieved tenure, for example, the chance that he or she might not have a job next semester might persuade that individual to fall into line and not question any action administrators might adopt. The practice is more common than one might think.

After teaching for several years at South Methodist University in Dallas, for example, a part-time lecturer was let go after her identity as the “phantom professor” was revealed.

The English instructor was maintaining a blog of her experiences as a professor at the university. Her very entertaining anecdotes included stories of spoiled students who claimed discrimination on account of being wealthy, and a story about another professor who was living with one of his or her students. She wrote about these and other accounts, including the faculty member who was twice charged for allegedly trying to run over two different pedestrians, without revealing any names or identities.

By writing these accounts, she revealed nothing more than the university life that everyone knows about, but no one speaks of — like the students who flirt with their professors in hopes of a little extra credit, or the fact that faculty meetings are a total bore for some professors. If professors were able to relate their personal experiences as instructors, we would be laughing for weeks, or gasping for days.

But this was not the Magic Kingdom administrators wanted to portray. So the “phantom professor” will not be returning to SMU. Administrators said it had nothing to do with the blog, and that the decision was made in an effort to have more full-time faculty and fewer part-timers. And of course, that was expected in the world of Disney University, and was not the least bit surprising.

But now, faculty are not just required to stay quiet in the way administrators choose to. But several people and groups now want to silence professors in the classroom, where discussion is supposed to be encouraged.

Concepts and ideas are meant to be questioned, not blindly accepted.

When our freedom of speech is being limited, sometimes the aggressor is not the most obvious one. We should be encouraging faculty, staff and students to speak out inside and outside the classroom. This type of indifference is a dangerous practice that can hinder our liberties and our academic advancement.

We should resist these limits on our speech, and encourage discussion.

And what better way than leading by example right here at CSUN.