Is it Uncivil Speech or Academic Freedom?

GW Libraries debate examines the boundaries when faculty members share personal beliefs publically.

October 3, 2014

Academic Freedom

University Writing Program Assistant Professor Zak Wolfe, CARE Network case manager Tracy Arwari and Department of American Studies Chair Melani McAlister discuss academic freedom with graduate student Brady Forrest.

By Brittney Dunkins

The gray area between academic freedom and civility on university campuses was the seed for a discussion on Wednesday at the George Washington University Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library—marking the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement in the U.S.

The panel, “Academic Freedom, Social Media and the Neoliberal University,” was, in part, a response to the-high profile case of Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American whose offer of tenured professorship at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaigne was rescinded in August because of his controversial Tweets about the Gaza-Israel conflict.

Dr. Salaita’s case has become indicative of a growing trend in higher education that pits civility against academic freedom.

“New styles of communication have opened up a whole new world to us but also a lot of issues,” University Librarian and Vice Provost for Libraries Geneva Henry said. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘What is academic freedom and how much do we really have when we are connected to a university with its own set of policies and concerns?’”

The panelists—Department of American Studies Chair Melani McAlister, CARE Network case manager Tracy Arwari and University Writing Program Assistant Professor Zak Wolfe— agreed that diverse opinions are necessary to foster a creative and intellectual campus community.

“The university campuses of the last 50 years have, arguably, been shaped by protest and uncivil speech,” said Dr. McAlister as a slideshow played the 1964 University of California, Berkeley, student protests that launched the Free Speech Movement.

“A vibrant campus culture involves uncivil speech,” she said.

Dr. Arwari added that alien or unpopular opinions, which she called “rogue discourse,” are necessary for intellectual debate, but should be treated carefully when presented by faculty, staff or others in positions of authority.

“Universities should be a space where we can take in rogue viewpoints and where we can think about, talk about and debate those viewpoints so that we can come up with a better way to discuss them,” she said.

"The university campuses of the last 50 years have, arguably, been shaped by protest and uncivil speech."
Melani McAlister, Department of American Studies Chair

Event organizer and moderator Brady Forrest, a graduate student in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, asked panelists to consider what message the University of Illinois’ response to Dr. Salaita sent to the public and other universities.

Dr. Wolfe said that the university’s response could alienate those who share Dr. Salaita’s beliefs.

“Universities have a higher responsibility to the robust exchange of ideas,” Dr. Wolfe said. “We need to make a distinction between statements that violate policies that are, sometimes rightfully, in place and discriminating against someone for their political views.”

“Firing someone for their views has a hugely chilling effect on those people who share those views,” he said. “They now know that people get fired for sharing those positions.”

In a world where “students are the Twitter followers of professors,” there’s a fine line between private opinion and public space, according to Dr. McAlister. “As university folks we have to be conscious of how our speech operates at different levels,” she said.

The panelists also examined GW’s response to statements about sexual assault made by President Emeritus and faculty member Stephen Joel Trachtenberg in August during an interview on WAMU-FM’s “Diane Rehm Show.”

Following strong reaction on social media and from student organizations to Mr. Trachtenberg’s remarks, George Washington President Steven Knapp sent a letter to the university community that highlighted GW’s position against sexual assault and the resources available for students, including the Title IX coordinator and vice provost for diversity and inclusion.


“Universities should be a space where we can take in rogue viewpoints and where we can think about, talk about and debate those viewpoints..."
- Tracy Arwari, CARE Network case manager


“President Emeritus Trachtenberg is currently a member of the GW faculty. He is free, as an individual faculty member, to express his personal views,” Dr. Knapp said in the letter. “My responsibility as president is to make my own and the university’s position — and the steps the university is actually taking — as clear as I can.”

Dr. McAlister believes that in the case of Mr. Trachtenberg, the university responded properly.

“I also think that the students and faculty who tweeted and wrote on Facebook and talked with each other about it also responded properly,” Dr. McAlister said. “What it incited is a conversation about sexual assault, gender, campus fraternity culture, and I think that has been really important.”

Prior to a Q-and-A session with the audience, Mr. Forrest read a statement made by Board of Trustees Chair Nelson A. Carbonell at a Faculty Senate meeting last spring that underscored the importance of academic freedom at GW.

"Firing someone for their views has a hugely chilling effect on those people who share those views."
 Zak Wolfe, University Writing Program assistant professor

Dr. Wolfe suggested that tenure allows faculty to feel more secure in the risks they take academically. Dr. Arwari said that Mr. Carbonell’s statement reflected the climate of a private university—which does not have the pressure from a governing Board of Regents that public universities have.

The panelists agreed that although free speech on university campuses is essential, managing the expectations of university community members, navigating the line between creating a safe and civil campus environment and championing academic freedom are difficult tasks.

“We are implicated in the political culture around us all the time but we have to uphold this ideal that, as a university, we are not subject to those pressures in order to do some of the good work we do,” Dr. McAlister said.