Last week the national AAUP delivered a letter to the leaders of the Rutgers University AAUP-AFT chapter expressing concern about a report by that university’s Office of Employment Equity, which concluded that Facebook posts on gentrification made by history professor James Livingston “were not protected by the First Amendment and furthermore violated the university’s policy on discrimination and harassment.” We wrote that any discipline stemming from that finding would violate long-standing principles of academic freedom that are embraced in the university’s own policies and collective bargaining agreement. A day after chapter leaders gave the letter to Rutgers president Robert Barchi, he ordered another review of the professor’s social media posts, calling for a more rigorous assessment.
Barchi — who said he was not aware of the report before its release — wrote that “few values are as important to the University as the protection of our First Amendment rights.” In light of the “complexities of this matter and the importance of our considering these matters with exceptional diligence,” Barchi announced the formation of a special advisory group, consisting of First Amendment and academic freedom scholars and attorneys, to provide guidance on this and similar alleged violations of Rutgers policies. For more on the case, here’s an article from today’s Inside Higher Ed.
The model provided by Kent Syverud, chancellor of Syracuse University, is worth noting. When one of his faculty members was harassed for a controversial tweet, he said, “We are and will remain a university. Free speech is and will remain one of our key values. I can’t imagine academic freedom or the genuine search for truth thriving here without free speech. Our faculty must be able to say and write things — including things that provoke some or make others uncomfortable — up to the very limits of the law.”
Barchi’s move, while perhaps not finally laying this case to rest, marks a major win nonetheless. One can only imagine how Professor Livingston might have fared had the Rutgers AAUP-AFT and the national AAUP not been there to defend his academic freedom right to extramural expression.
So I offer you a challenge: if you want to help the cause of academic freedom in other cases like this, please consider making a generous donation to the AAUP Foundation.
Chair, Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure