Standing up for academic freedom

Academic freedom: What is it? What does it protect? And where is the line between free speech and abuse? 


These are some of the questions the Portland State Faculty Senate set out to answer in a resolution passed unanimously on March 1


“Academic freedom is to the university what the freedoms of expression, association, and assembly are to democracy,” the resolution reads. “As with the abuse of democratic rights, carelessness in the exercise of academic freedom can undermine, stifle, and annihilate academic freedom itself.”


“As Faculty, we must be thoughtful in our exercise of academic freedom and guard against its cynical abuse that can take the form of bullying and intimidation,” the resolution continues. “This kind of abuse of academic freedom destroys academic freedom by eroding the trust that makes possible open dialogue, which is a central tenet in university intellectual life as well as in the practice of participatory democracy more broadly.” 


In a letter to the campus community, President Stephen Percy and Provost Susan Jeffords provided their support for the resolution. 


“As a community, we have a responsibility to one another to keep our campus environment—virtual and in-person—free from harassment and intimidation,” they wrote. “Our values as an institution include creating a safe space for a variety of perspectives and debate of intellectual ideas, advancing racial justice, supporting student success and fulfilling our role as a civic leader and partner within our community. While there are sometimes points of tension among these goals we do not view them as mutually exclusive or competing. These values underpin everything we do at [PSU].” 


In addition to the resolution, Percy and Jeffords also noted “the university and our [American Association of University Professors] colleagues will be working together to develop a guide available to members of the university who are experiencing harassment or other pressure from individuals or groups off campus.” 




According to Michele Gamburd, presiding officer of the Faculty Senate, recent incidents at PSU involving “bullying and intimidation” led to the resolution on academic freedom. (Because those incidents are personnel issues, Gamburd could not comment on the specific incidents.)


“I think what we’re seeing is that PSU is experiencing something that has happened at other universities as well, which is, I would portray as a kind of right-wing backlash against a lot of the work that campuses are doing on diversity, equity and inclusion,” Gamburd said in an interview. 


These incidents, according to Gamburd, involve professors using social media to encourage their students and the general public to “bully, intimidate and harass” faculty that they disagree with. An example: posting a professor’s syllabus or Zoom lectures on social media, and encouraging followers to contact the professor who made them. 


“They instigate hate crimes, basically,” Gamburd said. 


This is in reference to the recent “Woke@” campaign on Instagram, where individuals are encouraged to post university materials that they believe perpetuate liberal ideology. 


According to Presiding Officer Elect of the Faculty Senate Vicki Reitenauer at the March 1 Faculty Senate meeting: “Over several meetings of the Faculty Senate Steering Committee, when it became clear that the current national Woke@ campaign that’s taking place and being forwarded on a number of campuses where individuals, students and others are being encouraged to send material to an [Instagram account] that is meant to showcase work that is considered ‘woke’ by the definitions of those who are forwarding this kind of process, that that’s touched us at PSU—there’s a Woke@PSU campaign—there have been individuals who have been targeted and had their materials and personal information posted through that site.”


The resolution, according to Reitenauer, is meant to show solidarity for those targeted professors.


Bruce Gilley, a controversial professor of political science at PSU, released a report through the Oregon Association of Scholars on March 8 which condemns the resolution as a “gag-order” on professors and which questions the validity of the ‘Woke@’ campaign at PSU, stating that it was a single incident involving one professor, and that “there is no evidence that the faculty member whose course materials were shared suffered anything more than the normal slings and arrows of life in the public realm.”


According to the report: “The resolution, in redefining normal debate and criticism, as acts of ‘intimidation’ and ‘bullying,’ falls afoul not just of common sense but of constitutional protections and normal workplace employment law, especially for a public university where faculty governance and academic freedom are core principles subject to state laws. Nor does it contemplate the implications the resolution would have if applied to Woke Studies professors who regularly engage in such ‘intimidation’ of their unWoke colleagues.” 


On Percy’s and Jefford’s support for the resolution, the report states: “The delusion of a make-believe Woke@PSU Capitol Riot permeates to the highest levels of the university, now acting in the name of combating ‘false information.’”


“Citizens, advocates, and policy-makers have a duty to intervene to protect the freedoms of a liberal society from this New Censorship,” the report concludes.


“I think that what we’ve seen in discussions around ‘wokeness’ is people who are trying to reconceptualize what the work of the university is in a way to make it less threatening to their interests by saying that we are engaged with some sort of a deep-state clampdown on anything except politically correct ways of thinking,” Gamburd said at the meeting. 


“They believe themselves to be the saviors of free speech and free thought at the university,” Gamburd said later in an interview.  “They believe that [liberal ideology] is being forced on people and that it’s creating a hostile environment for people who don’t share that commitment to equity.” 


According to Gamburd, this kind of thinking has led to multiple instances of harassment against professors at the university, and is what inspired the recent Woke@ campaigns.


Gamburd noted that this issue isn’t exclusive to PSU. While the resolution was timed with a recent incident at PSU, it is also part of a larger, ongoing project to address the issue of professors using the guise of academic freedom to harass their colleagues with whom they disagree.


“A resolution like this is overdue,” Reitenauer said at the meeting. 


Gamburd remarked that while people in human resources and the office of academic affairs are dealing with the issue, the Faculty Senate felt they needed to take a stand. 


“We’re not censoring any faculty, but we are calling out behaviors that we feel are counter to the way we do things at an institution,” Gamburd said. “We want to be welcoming of diverse views, but we also have rules around conversations when we have a difference of opinion.” 


“It’s not part of academic freedom to somehow have a right to take your colleagues copyrighted course materials, put them on the internet and encourage students to first view the materials, which is a violation of the student code of conduct, and then encourage the general public to attack your colleague.” 


“That’s not academic freedom, that’s not acceptable,” she continued. “That isn’t even free speech, that’s hate speech and harassment, that’s bullying and intimidation, and the people who are experiencing that are disproportionately women and faculty of color.” 


During discussion prior to voting on whether or not to adopt the resolution at the March 1 Faculty Senate meeting, some senators remarked that the resolution might not go far enough.


According to Senator Matt Chorpenning: “Academic freedom is already protecting a kind of status-quo of Portland polite racism, and I think it’s important to name that for the record. I am fully in support of this statement, but I think it’s important to name and hold that concern that what we’re really getting at is if we want to be more anti-racist as a university, we are not making a values-neutral claim, and we are saying that there are things we will not tolerate, and I wonder if it would be worth it for us to explore saying that.” 


Gamburd remarked that this kind of resolution is tricky to construct. It’s important to make a strong statement against using academic freedom as an excuse for harassment, but she said it’s also important not to give a “martyr complex” to individuals engaging in the harassment.


“They love publicity, so how do we do this so that they have less of it, while still supporting our faculty and taking a strong stance on our commitment to academic freedom?” she said. “It’s a tricky balancing act, and anybody who sticks their neck out—even for the most positive of reasons—will get threatened, and that takes a personal toll.” 


The AAUP and academic freedom 


As Percy and Jeffords noted in their letter to the campus community, AAUP is also invested in this issue. 


The following is a statement from PSU-AAUP representatives to Portland State Vanguard about the resolution: 


“On March 2, 2021, the Portland State University Faculty Senate passed a resolution on academic freedom. As the resolution reminds the PSU community, “University policies that spell out the commitment to academic freedom also recognize responsibilities that come with it.” It calls attention to the importance of differentiating between “the responsible use of academic freedom and the abuse of academic freedom.” President Percy and Provost Jeffords issued a statement affirming the Senate’s resolution, reiterating the necessity of “guarding against abuses” of free speech and academic freedom. “Our values as an institution,” they wrote, “include creating a safe space for a variety of perspectives and debate of intellectual ideas, advancing racial justice, supporting student success and fulfilling our role as a civic leader and partner within our community.”


PSU-AAUP welcomes the Faculty Senate’s resolution and the administration’s affirmation of the values voiced therein. We defend our members’ academic freedom and their right to express it in public forums. However, when this public engagement takes the form of, and indeed encourages, disrespect, bullying, and intimidation of our colleagues, all the while invoking academic freedom as a shield, academic freedom is being abused and undermined. In fact, PSU-AAUP has filed a Division A grievance on behalf of members who have been targets of online bullying and harassment occurring under the guise of academic freedom. 


Even before this Faculty Senate resolution passed and President Percy and Provost Jeffords affirmed it, PSU-AAUP bargained with Administration over these very issues. Although PSU has in place various practices and procedures for dealing with intimidation and harassment at the workplace, we argued that academic freedom is increasingly chilled by public campaigns targeting particular faculty and programs, and that PSU needs to update and disseminate its protocols as part of its commitment to uphold academic freedom. As President Percy and Provost Jeffords noted in their message to campus, one outcome of bargaining over these issues is that the administration and PSU-AAUP agreed to develop a guide for responding to harassment, intimidation, or other pressure from individuals and groups off campus. When individuals on campus participate in or endorse these abusive tactics, they are claiming academic freedom in bad faith.”


Moving forward


According to Gamburd, this is a rare moment in which the AAUP, Faculty Senate and administration are all on the same page. 


“That doesn’t happen all that often, but this [resolution] is the defence of the core principle of how we do things at the university,” she said.


What kind of impact does the senate hope this resolution might make? 


“It gives the administration and the senate and the union something to refer back to when we say, these are the bounds for how we do academic discussions, and these are the things that are out of bounds and not acceptable,” Gamburd said. Additionally, she noted that the resolution could be a step towards holding professors who participate in harassment campaigns accountable. 


At the March 1 meeting, Gamburd remarked: “I think what we’re trying to do here is to draw the lines around how we play the game of academic debate in ways that do not threaten and intimidate our colleagues, or ask our students to break the student code of conduct.” 


“This is a point at which the faculty, the administration and the union are standing together to defend one of the basic values of our institution,” Gamburd said. 


At this time, there are no plans to pass a similar resolution. “We are trying to clarify how you can use [academic freedom], and what sorts of behaviors and principles are covered by it, and which ones don’t fit,” Gamburd said. “Will we go any further on it? No plans at the moment, but if it becomes necessary, we might need to.”