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At Senate plenary, faculty and students debate freedom of expression in the classroom

As an ongoing conversation about freedom of speech on college campuses continues across the nation, the University Senate initiated a debate about freedom of expression in the classroom during its first plenary of the year on Friday.

The Faculty Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over University-wide academic matters including academic freedom, proposed drafting a resolution to affirm a statement on freedom of expression published by the University of Chicago in 2014. Also endorsed by several other universities, the statement emphasizes the importance of maintaining free and open discourse at higher-education institutions.

Free speech within the classroom has been widely debated within the Columbia community. Texts taught in the Core Curriculum have been challenged for its inclusion of sensitive topics. During convocation for this year’s incoming first-years, University President Lee Bollinger emphasized the importance of keeping an open mind, even towards potentially uncomfortable ideas.  

University Senator and professor of astronomy James Applegate advocated for the Senate to adopt the University of Chicago’s statement and argued that freedom of speech is especially important within the classroom, where faculty members may face backlash for discussing controversial topics.

“[The policy] states something that I believe in very strongly about the freedom of expression, about the right to express your opinions and an obligation to extend those rights to others to listen respectfully and debate about ideas,” Applegate said. “This is absolutely at the core of what the University does.”

The statement is not officially connected to the University of Chicago’s controversial letter to new students this summer, which disavowed safe spaces and trigger warnings. However, some students and faculty at the plenary argued that an endorsement of the statement would also implicitly endorse its welcome letter.

“If the University believes there is a threat to that here at Columbia, then Columbia should engage in its own reflection on how this right is exercised on campus,” Vice Chair of the Student Affairs Committee Daniella Urbina said. “We’re not sure why the University would want to adopt the principles of another institution, particularly one who recently has lost the trust of so many members of its community by sending out a letter misconstruing the efforts of students to create an inclusive campus environment.”

Peter Platt, a member of the Faculty Affairs Committee and professor of English at Barnard, emphasized the difference between the letter and the statement. While the letter “threatened to divide the students and faculty,” Platt believes the official statement links the concerns of both parties and “finds common ground because we all care about debate, freedom of expression, and being comfortable with uncomfortable ideas,” he said.

The debate over freedom of expression in the classroom has also been heightened by Columbia’s decision to publish anonymous faculty evaluations on CourseWorks last year.

Co-Chair of the Faculty Affairs Committee Letty Moss-Salentijn raised concerns that while anonymous comments are valuable when it comes to assessing students’ experiences in the classroom, evaluations that criticize professors for discussing controversial issues also have the potential to trigger Title IX investigations.

Such comments “tend to be very damaging in a number of ways,” Moss-Salentijin said, particularly in their potential to restrict freedom of expression within a classroom.

Applegate believes a likely faculty response would be to avoid discussions about controversial topics altogether. This could be especially problematic for non-tenured faculty members, whose professional standing is dependent upon periodic review.

The senate pushed a vote on the freedom of speech resolution to the October plenary in order for the Faculty Affairs Committee and the Student Affairs Committee to spend time jointly considering various options, including affirming the University of Chicago’s statement or drafting one specific to Columbia.

In addition to its deliberation on freedom of expression, the plenary also discussed the University’s expansion to Manhattanville. Representing the Campus Planning and Physical Development Committee, Senator Ronald Breslow emphasized the relevance of Manhattanville to undergraduate and graduate student education, questioning whether the facilities would be used to teach students and how they would be transported to the new campus.

“What is the relationship of Manhattanville to teaching undergraduates and graduate students? We really don’t have any story that we’ve heard yet about how it’s going to be done,” Brewslow said. “But in any case, it would be a shame I think if all of that was done and it had no positive effect on the education of our students.”

The senate ultimately passed two resolutions at their first plenary. The first adopted a set of sustainability principles for the University, which had already been endorsed by President Lee Bollinger. The second created a Master of Science in Human Capital Management degree program within the School of Professional Studies, which will primarily target people with or seeking careers in human resources.

October’s plenary will continue the discussion about freedom of speech and include a presentation from the Presidential Advisory Committee on sexual assault.

news@columbiaspectator.com | @ColumbiaSpec

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