College Student Silenced by Professor’s Academic Freedom

Dear Liz,

I have a professor who has recently been talking about a sexual assault case. The perpetrator was a woman and a school guidance counselor who plead guilty to four counts of felonious sexual assault. The victim was a 14-year-old boy who was later diagnosed with PTSD and depression, after the assaults took place. Three college professors wrote a character statement for the defense team supporting the perpetrator. The president of the college fired the professors for supporting her. My professor personally knows the perpetrator and keeps telling my class how she is a good person and how her life is ruined because of this case. He also keeps telling us how it is stupid that the professors got fired. He expressed how this “one bad thing” is going to ruin her life. During this discussion in class I was getting really upset, but I did not feel comfortable speaking up. My roommate and I both have him as a professor, but in different classes. The next day my roommate came back from his class crying, because she was so upset about the conversation he had with her class. Later that day, my professor sent both classes an incredibly biased news article, basically expressing support for the three professors and the defendant. I think it is incredibly ignorant of my teacher to talk about the case the way he has been. However, I do not know how to address this problem. Please help!

Dear friend,

It is understandable that you and your roommate are upset, as well as uncertain about how to handle this. Your professor is in a position of power, and he is sending a clear message about sexual assault, or at least this sexual assault:  the victimization and suffering of this young man is not that big a deal. This is a perspective that certainly dilutes the severity of sexual abuse.  In fact, it is this sort of rhetoric around sexual assault that contributes to a culture that tolerates sexual assault, and shifts blame to the victim.

While his take on this crime is incredibly offensive, I suspect the academic freedom he is afforded in his role permits him to deliver such ideas in the classroom. And perhaps it should.  Professors often make students uncomfortable, offend them or anger them, when they present ideas far out of the scope of a student’s comfort. In my opinion, this can be a good thing.  It invites the student to hone their own views, to nurture their confidence in their intellectual abilities, and to find the courage to challenge someone in a position of power, all of which contribute to genuine intellectual development, and arguably, character development.

But where does “healthy student discomfort” end, and the silencing of students begin? When does the practice of academic freedom inhibit learning, rather than facilitate it?  When do “controversial ideas” crossover from “emotionally challenging” to emotionally abusive?  When does a viewpoint delivered by a person in power work counter to our individual and communal effort to advance ethically?  I’m not so sure that line can be clearly identified, but it certainly warrants a conversation.

Additionally, it is important to remember that this professor’s freedom does not trump yours. Just as he has academic freedom, you have the right to challenge his speech with your own, whether that be in class, privately, in the press, etc.  In fact, learning how to navigate a moment such as this can bring about a pivotal shift in your personal journey.  Speaking truth to power will exponentially increase your own sense of authentic personal power.

My advice is this:  Seek out someone on your campus whom you trust and speak to her/him about what you shared with me.  That trusted person will help you discern the action you wish to take—you may prepare a response to share in class, you may report this to the Chair of his department, you might check in with the Title IX office on your campus, you might get in touch with your college newspaper, and bring them the story.  By including a trusted third party, you may feel better equipped to both navigate this and advocate for yourself.

Your instinct and that of your roommate is spot on. Hold your head high and seek out support from someone on your campus as soon as possible.  Speaking truth to power always requires integrity and great personal courage.  Given the fact that you couldn’t ignore this and wrote in, suggests to me you have a very large reserve of just that:  conscience and courage.  I’m proud of you.

All the very best,

Liz

For those interested in additional reading around Academic Freedom and Title IX:
https://www.chronicle.com/article/Kipnis-Case-Highlights/230621
https://www.aaup.org/report/history-uses-and-abuses-title-ix

 

 

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