by Jennifer Ruth, PSU-AAUP VP of Academic Freedom and Grievances
July 20, 2020
Guest blogger Jennifer Ruth is professor of film studies at Portland State University. She is a member of the AAUP’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure and served for two years as the faculty editor for the Journal of Academic Freedom.
Last week on Academe Blog, John Wilson argued that one idea proposed by Princeton faculty members who wrote a July 4 letter calling for anti-racist reforms is misguided. The signatories ask Princeton administrators to “constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.” I do not know the particular controversies at Princeton that may have prompted parts of the letter or that, in turn, have sparked in reaction to it. I consider here only the idea of constituting a faculty committee.
Wilson’s concern is understandable. The default position of many of us, I’d guess, is that punishing faculty speech is almost always a mistake and that rigorous protections for speech have in the past enabled progress significantly more often than they have hindered it. Here’s the thing, though: faculty are already routinely punished for speech perceived to be discriminatory. Human resource departments, offices of equity and inclusion, and other bureaucracies of the university pursue these investigations, and with steadily increasing frequency and severity of consequence over the last decade. When faculty and staff are investigated for discrimination at Portland State University (PSU), where I teach, the Office of Global Diversity and Inclusion (OGDI) relays its findings to administrators and recommends discipline if it believes discrimination has occurred. It is then up to the administrator (chair, dean, provost, or president) to decide on disciplinary sanctions, which can range from an oral reprimand to termination. All of this happens without faculty involvement or oversight, unless a faculty member or administrative professional who is subject to any consequences more severe than a written reprimand requests a panel of peers to weigh in before discipline is imposed. The requirement for such an option is the result of the strong collective bargaining agreement negotiated by our wonderfully proactive PSU-AAUP chapter. The committee proposed by the Princeton letter would make this the process—not something that might kick in as a last resort after a faculty member has already been under what is usually an extremely protracted investigation.