Faculty fearful, wary at ASU
by Anna Oakes
Several Appalachian State University
faculty members said Monday that they have felt a threat to academic freedom and a “chilling
effect” on their speech in the classroom since a sociology professor was placed on
administrative leave last spring.
The ASU Faculty Senate convened
for its first monthly meeting of the 2012-13 academic year on Monday, and a discussion on academic
freedom was on the agenda.
“I think many of us can agree
that there has been a chill on this campus,” said Jill Ehnenn, an English professor and
member of the Faculty Senate Academic Policy Committee. “(There has been) a lot of talk, a
lot of fear, a lot of complaints and a lot of questions.”
ASU sociology professor Jammie Price was placed on administrative leave March 16
after complaints from four students, who alleged that Price made disparaging remarks about
student-athletes, repeatedly criticized ASU administrators, discussed personal material not on the
syllabus and showed a pornography-related documentary without warning about the film’s
potentially objectionable content.
Following an investigation by
ASU, Price was allowed to return to her classroom but required to engage in several
“corrective actions,” including sensitivity training and random peer reviews.
Price and other faculty members, however, feel that placing
Price on leave constituted a disciplinary action and as such, as outlined in the Faculty Handbook,
Price should have been granted a timely hearing before the Faculty Due Process Committee. ASU
administrators, including Provost Lori Gonzalez, disagreed, stating the administrative leave was
part of an investigation and not a disciplinary action.
made headlines across the nation and resulted in a May 8 letter to ASU from the Foundation for
Individual Rights in Education, which said, “App State’s treatment of Price presents
several serious threats to academic freedom, free expression and due process.”
Ehnenn presented a list of questions from faculty about ASU’s practice
and policy related to academic freedom, such as: “Is it never permissible for faculty and
students to discuss topics in or outside of class that are not directly related to the course
material outlined on the syllabus?,” “Is in-class criticism of the university, or any
program within the university, always considered inappropriate?” and “Is it never
permissible for a faculty member to challenge students’ ideas and beliefs even if doing so
leads to a student feeling uncomfortable or upset?”
should not even have to ask these questions,” she said, but junior faculty members in
particular “are scared.” She asked fellow Senate members about how to proceed, whether
through public forums, resolutions or requests for clarity from the provost and
Jim Stoddard, a marketing professor, asked if the ASU
Office of Equity, Diversity and Compliance was being too broad in what it deemed to be a
“hostile environment in the classroom.” Mark Zrull, a psychology professor, said it
would be helpful for faculty to know what ASU administrators believe academic freedom is and the
case law with regard to academic freedom.
“I’d like to
know where these lines are — where the courts have been,” Zrull said.
Ehnenn asked if it would be attorneys outside of the university solicited for
their opinions on case law or the university’s own attorneys, noting an April guidance
letter from ASU General Counsel Dayton Cole on political activities by state
“The lawyers gave an answer that we felt
overstepped,” she said.
In that letter, a response to
questions raised during a March Faculty Senate meeting, Cole concluded that faculty members who
engage students in a classroom discussion about a ballot item (constitutional amendments,
referenda, candidates, etc.) that is not relevant to a course or who “communicated in a way
that was perceived as coercive” could be directed to teach the course in a different way or
Senator Jeff Holcomb said he felt attorneys
outside of the university might have different interpretations of the laws and policies about
academic freedom in the classroom.
“It doesn’t always
feel like the university attorneys have our backs,” he said.
Renee Scherlen, a government and justice studies professor attending the meeting
as a visitor, said there is an “unbelievably chilling effect” in having to
“worry about how our students perceive us.”
“That’s almost impossible,” she said. Government and justice
studies professor Ruth Ann Strickland agreed, stating she wondered if she needs to tape her classes
to serve as an independent record.
April Flanders, an art
professor, said art faculty are very concerned, as nudity and politics are common among artistic
“There is quite a chill in the
department,” she said.
Gonzalez, who regularly attends
Faculty Senate meetings, said she and other administrators would provide answers to faculty
“Some of the things that are said
are not the whole story,” she said, but added that she understands and respects faculty
members’ concerns about a chilling effect, noting she was a faculty member in the
“I’ve been an administrator, which really is
not the evil empire,” she also said. “If we don’t work together, then we’re
all doomed. I ask that you offer the benefit of the doubt.”
Gonzalez said ASU could seek case law from its own attorneys as well as attorneys
for the General Administration of the University of North Carolina, which could be