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Senators and visitors at ASU's Faculty Senate meeting listen to a discussion on academic freedom concerns on Monday.
Anna Oakes | Watauga Democrat

Originally published: 2012-09-11 17:21:47
Last modified: 2012-09-11 17:48:27

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.

The case 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?”

“We 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 chancellor.

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 employees.

“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 be disciplined.

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 subject matter.

“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 members’ questions.

“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 past.

“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 “educational.”

“I want to feel confident in the procedures that are in place to protect me … and that these procedures will be followed,” Holcomb said.