Randa Jarrar and Academic Freedom

April 20, 2018

Randa Jarrar doesn’t seem to understand academic freedom, and I don’t think officials at Fresno State University, where she has a tenured appointment, do either. I say ‘seems’ because I’m finding it difficult to locate thoughtful statements from any of them (pro or con).  But what I do find they are saying is seriously inadequate.

Fresno State

Fresno State

Jarrar is the Creative Writing professor who fired up a tweet storm after Barbara Bush died, calling the former first lady “an amazing racist.”  When the tweet storm brought on a public backlash, she declared “I will never be fired.”  I take that to be a claim that her tenured status makes her invulnerable to dismissal for anything she says.  Said Jarrar in a follow-up tweet,

“LOL let me help you. You should tag my president @JosephlCastro. What I love about being an American professor is my right to free speech, and what I love about Fresno State is that I always feel protected and at home here,” Jarrar wrote. “GO BULLDOGS!”

Pressed to say something, President Joseph Castro said that her remarks went “beyond free speech. This was disrespectful.”  He said, “A professor with tenure does not have blanket protection to say and do what they wish,” he said. “We are all held accountable for our actions.” A statement from the university declared that Jarrar’s tweets were “obviously contrary to the core values of our University” but that they “were made as a private citizen.”

Later, the university backtracked by issuing another statement in which Castro declared ““academic freedom is at the core of our University, something we promote and practice every day in our teaching, research and public service. I am a fervent supporter of academic freedom and its underlying principles, as defined by the First Amendment. This is the essence of our democracy.”

Academic Freedom, First Amendment: we confuse these all the time and we should not.  The First Amendment is a constitutional guarantee that the government cannot prevent speech.  Because Fresno State is a public (i.e. government) institution, there may well be First Amendment protections for Jarrar.  I’m not a lawyer; I won’t try to address those.  We should note, though, that the First Amendment recognizes rights that everyone has, and carries no parallel responsibilities.

Academic Freedom, however, is a professional understanding of the relationship between a university and its faculty and students.  It is commonly written into Faculty handbooks, employment contracts and other legal documents that give it force of law.  It does NOT, however, protect a professor from being dismissed no matter what they say.  It carries both rights and responsibilities.  Foremost among those responsibilities are to speak truthfully and respectfully.

Its canonical expression is the 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors.  Its explication of academic freedom comes in three parts: one concerning research and the publication of the fruits of research, one concerning teaching and the classroom, and one concerning public expression.  All three parts articulate both rights and responsibilities of professors.  Here is what the 1940 Statement says about public utterances:

College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

“Obligations,” “appropriate restraint,” “respect for the opinions of others,” “indicate they are not speaking for the institution:” Jarrar failed each of these tests in the opinion of many.

Could she be disciplined: suspended? docked pay? fired? All these are possible under the 1940 Statement.  She is not invulnerable under the 1940 Statement.  Instead she has a right to specific process using professional judgments.

A judgment that she had failed to live up to her professional responsibilities would have to be considered by a committee of other professors at Fresno State, she would have to see all the evidence gathered against her, and an opportunity to respond to the charges and the evidence.  The President or Provost could not simply sanction her.  But she could be sanctioned by joint action of the her peers and officials of the university.  More specifically, here is what the 1940 Statement says:

Termination for cause of a continuous appointment, or the dismissal for cause of a teacher previous to the expiration of a term appointment, should, if possible, be considered by both a faculty committee and the governing board of the institution. In all cases where the facts are in dispute, the accused teacher should be informed before the hearing in writing of the charges and should have the opportunity to be heard in his or her own defense by all bodies that pass judgment upon the case. The teacher should be permitted to be accompanied by an advisor of his or her own choosing who may act as counsel. There should be a full stenographic record of the hearing available to the parties concerned. In the hearing of charges of incompetence the testimony should include that of teachers and other scholars, either from the teacher’s own or from other institutions. Teachers on continuous appointment who are dismissed for reasons not involving moral turpitude should receive their salaries for at least a year from the date of notification of dismissal whether or not they  are continued in their duties at the institution.

Again, the First Amendment may give her different rights relative to the university.  But “academic freedom” doesn’t make her invulnerable to dismissal.

For the record, I don’t think Randa Jarrar’s tweets make any case for dismissal.  Rude, they were.  Perhaps she should be made to read the 1940 Statement (and other AAUP statements on academic freedom) before she returns to the university. President Castro should read it, too.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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