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A Tale of Two Professors

Wolfe_George.jpgIt was September 2004. A conservative group calling itself Students for Academic Freedom sent a letter to President Jo Ann Gora of Ball State University (BSU) demanding an investigation into the university's peace studies program led by Professor George Wolfe. The group alleged that Wolfe had violated student rights in class by excluding contrary views from his course readings, by offering extra credit to students who agreed to take part in a protest against the Iraq war (but not offering credit for students who might want to demonstrate in support of the war), by coercing students to volunteer for various ideologically driven peace programs or attend "Interfaith Fellowship" meetings, and by "creat[ing] the impression that he would lower students' grades on papers when he disagreed with their views." (See "Letter to the President of Ball State University," September 13, 2004, in Indoctrination or Education?, pp. 20-23.)

Hedin_Eric.jpgThe current controversy over BSU physics professor Eric Hedin bears eerie similarities to the nearly decade-old controversy over Professor Wolfe. Just like the Wolfe case in 2004, the Hedin case erupted when an outside interest group -- this time the atheist Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) -- sent a letter of complaint to BSU's President Jo Ann Gora. In both cases, there was a prominent public activist lurking behind the complaint. In 2004, the activist was conservative firebrand David Horowitz, founder of Students for Academic Freedom. In 2013, the activist is atheist Darwinian biologist Jerry Coyne at the University of Chicago, who started to hurl anathemas against Hedin's course on his blog before the FFRF issued its formal complaint.

Despite the striking similarities, there are also dramatic differences between the two academic freedom controversies, especially in how BSU administrators chose to respond. Those differences raise important questions about whether BSU is committed to protecting academic freedom in an equal and impartial manner.

In the current dispute, Professor Hedin has been left in an academic no man's land, waiting while a potentially biased "review panel" investigates him and while BSU's provost equivocates in public about whether academic freedom protects Professor Hedin's right to teach his course.

The contrast with how BSU handled the complaint against Professor Wolfe couldn't be more stark. Instead of appointing a review panel or launching an extensive investigation in 2004, BSU officials quickly circled the wagons around Professor Wolfe and defended him to the media, the state legislature, and the public at large. The minimal investigation of the complaint against Wolfe seems to have consisted of the provost talking to both Wolfe's supervisor and Professor Wolfe and reading some letters. The provost apparently did not even bother to interview the student who had come forward to allege discriminatory treatment in class. As a result, the Wolfe complaint was quickly disposed of. The letter of complaint from Students for Academic Freedom was dated September 13. A mere ten days later, on September 23, the provost issued a response exonerating Wolfe. (See "Reply from Ball State Provost Beverly Pitts" and "Reply to Provost Pitts" in Indoctrination or Education?, pp. 23-28.)

Wolfe himself later recalled:

When contacted by Ball State provost Beverly Pitts shortly after the Horowitz attack, she asked me how she should respond to the accusations that had been made. Dr. Pitts let me know from the beginning that she wanted to take on this fight, that this was her job as provost. She only needed from me material to address the issues in the media, and more importantly, to the Ball State board of trustees and politicians at the Indiana State House. (emphasis added)

Read the part in bold again: "Dr. Pitts let me know from the beginning that she wanted to take on this fight, that this was her job as provost." All the provost needed was material she could use to defend Wolfe in the media and to the legislature. In other words, her inquiry was primarily about how to best defend their professor and his academic freedom.

Compare that approach to the Hedin case today. By any objective measure, the complaint submitted by the Freedom from Religion Foundation against Hedin was far less serious, and far less credible, than the allegations lodged against Professor Wolfe. In saying this, I am not taking sides about who was right in the Wolfe controversy. Professor Wolfe vigorously challenged the allegations made against him at the time, and David Horowitz has continued to defend his criticisms of Wolfe. My point is merely that the complaint originally leveled against Wolfe put forward much more serious allegations of misconduct than the complaint against Hedin. The complaint against Wolfe identified a student by name who made specific charges of discriminatory treatment and the intimidation of students. By contrast, the complaint against Hedin did not identify any student who was willing to complain on the record against Hedin. Instead, it merely highlighted a few anonymous (and ambiguous) comments from RateMyProfessor.com, a website that doesn't even verify whether those posting comments are in fact college students, let alone whether they ever took courses from the professor in question.

More importantly, and unlike in the Wolfe case, the complaint against Hedin did not allege that Hedin had actually intimidated students or threatened to grade them down for holding different beliefs than himself.

Despite the fact that the allegations against Hedin were far less weighty than those against Wolfe, BSU's current provost Terry King did not dispose of FFRF's complaint quickly. Instead, he created a review panel that appears to be stacked with faculty with conflicts of interest who are likely to be hostile to Professor Hedin's point of view. In the meantime, Professor Hedin has been left hanging without any clear support from the top officials at his university. It is now more than forty days (and counting) since FFRF's complaint -- a far cry from the ten days it took for the university to resolve the more serious complaint against Professor Wolfe.

In public, meanwhile, BSU provost Terry King has equivocated about whether academic freedom protects Professor Hedin's right to cover the topics included in his previously approved honors course. While saying that he supports academic freedom, Provost King has repeatedly emphasized that teaching must be "appropriate," without defining what that means. Moreover, according to the BSU student newspaper, King "said some confuse First Amendment freedom of speech with academic freedom in a course, but the two are different." It's unclear what King meant by that comment, but he certainly seemed to be trying to limit the reach of academic freedom by making the distinction. King went on to define academic freedom in an extremely ambiguous manner: "in the appropriate teaching of a course, one can bring in controversial concepts if it's appropriate to the nature of the course... We are very much in support of faculty members appropriately teaching their courses or appropriately doing their research even if it takes them into unpopular areas." (emphasis added) Provost King did not define "appropriate" for the newspaper, which is such an ambiguous and subjective term that it could easily be used as a pretext to completely silence any professor who holds views that disagree with the majority of his or her colleagues. Is this all the guidance the provost provided to his review panel -- to determine whether Hedin's course is "appropriate"? If so, it won't be especially surprising if the panel doesn't end up ensuring Hedin's academic freedom to teach his course.

BSU's current provost should look more deeply into his own institution's Faculty and Professional Personnel Handbook, which offers guidance that is a lot more clear-cut than his vague standard that a professor must be "appropriate." The Handbook asserts: "Academic freedom is essential... and applies to both teaching and research... Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning." (p. 63) Furthermore, "[t]he teacher is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing the appointed subject, but should be careful not to introduce a controversial matter which has no relation to the subject." (pp. 63-64) Given that the purpose of Hedin's "Boundaries of Science" course was to examine the nature and limits of science, as well as the possible metaphysical implications of science, Hedin's exploration of the relationship between faith and science clearly cannot be disqualified on grounds that it "has no relation to the subject." Later in the Handbook, there is an explicit statement that "Academic freedom and freedom of expression include but are not limited to the expression of ideas, philosophies, or religious beliefs, however controversial, in classroom or other academic settings." (p. 68) Has Provost King made sure that his review panel is aware of this language and takes care to follow it?

Once BSU duly hires a professor, and a course is officially approved, should an administrator be able to censor the professor's class simply because the professor's views are controversial, or even because the administrator thinks the course is not balanced? BSU professor George Wolfe certainly doesn't seem to think so. As he stated when defending his own academic freedom:

Who decides the question of balance? Is it the Provost? Is it the Dean? Is it the Department Chair? Is it the Professor? Is it the student? It obviously is the professor who has structured the class, knows the most about the material, and has the most insight into what creates the best learning environment for the students and it is the professor that should determine what is balance. If you have one student out of 20 that complains about the class, does that one student provide reason for changing the course content, we have student evaluations and we obviously know how the majority of the students are feeling about the teacher. (emphasis added)

In another forum, Wolfe went on to provide this expansive statement of academic freedom:

Academic freedom has a long tradition and is meant to protect faculty who teach controversial subjects or conduct controversial research. It also prevents administrators, government officials, and yes, even students, from dictating what can or cannot be taught in a class, or what teaching strategies should be used to present educational material. Professors therefore are free to "profess," to teach in their own way, to assemble and present course material according to their informed educated judgment regarding the research and subject matter in their respective fields. Keep in mind that if we take this protection away from liberal professors, we take it away from conservative professors as well. (emphasis added)

As BSU faculty and administrators consider the case of Eric Hedin, they should read and carefully ponder the words of George Wolfe. If they end up placing special restrictions on Hedin's right to teach -- restrictions not placed on any other professors at BSU -- they will have opened the door to future efforts to restrict their own right to teach. Indeed, they will have ceded the moral high ground and undermined their ability to protect professors who hold views that they favor.