Thoughts on Penn State

By Mark Bauerlein

As reported here, the Senate Committee on Faculty Affairs at Penn State has revised the school’s academic freedom policy and submitted a new version to the president for approval. The proposed changes include, the Introduction says, “Converting the list of restrictions on academic freedom into affirmative principles.” To that end, the Committee has deleted the final two sentences of the old policy:

No faculty member may claim as a right the privilege of discussing in the classroom controversial topics outside his/her own field of study. The faculty member is normally bound not to take advantage of his/her position by introducing into the classroom provocative discussions of irrelevant subjects not within the field of his/her study.

Apparently, the Committee regards the “privilege” noted here as a feature of academic freedom; likewise for license to introduce “provocative discussions of irrelevant subjects.”

The revised version does have a related sentence in the preceding paragraph warning teachers against “persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subjects.” One might assume that the Committee removed the two sentences above, then, for reasons of duplication. But the Introduction doesn’t mention anything like “Avoidance of redundancy” in its list of intentions.

Or, perhaps, the Committee sees the old version as too open to abuse. A lively teacher who in a class on 19th-century American history continually invokes the Holocaust and Vietnam and the War on Terror might incite a jingoistic student to file a complaint. An unscrupulous administrator might then censure the teacher and convert what was an exciting, broad-ranging course into a humdrum exercise, with the teacher carrying around self-doubts for years. Once again, however, the list of intentions says nothing about clarifying the line between relevant and irrelevant or preventing administrator abuse.

It seems clear that the Committee considered the deleted sentences as something worse and redundant or vulnerable, namely, an inherent restriction on academic freedom. This puts the Committee in an uncomfortable position (should anyone step forward to challenge its work). Nobody wants to affirm that the right to “introduce provocative discussions on irrelevant subjects” is essential to academic freedom. Not only does that assertion raise embarrassing questions of competence and rigor. It also clouds the academic freedom of other people in the room, the students.

First, it throws the day’s session onto uncertain grounds. The syllabus lays out the course topic and assignments. Students know on what and how they will be graded. What they don’t know is what the teacher expects of them when outside matters enter the room. Most anything that happens in a classroom carries with it an implicit demand that students respond to it, and they can’t respond freely unless they understand what the expectations are.

Second, the provocative nature of the imported topic has numerous effects. It creates an antagonistic atmosphere in the room, turning students against students and (some) students against professors. Tough forensics in class are a good thing, of course, but unless the acquire a relevant standing, the challenge usually proves disruptive. Provocation also makes students wonder whether scholarly norms will be applied to their statements, or will political norms or simple emotion prevail? If students in an English literature class debate the meaning of the final lines of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” they will feel confident that they will be evaluated on how well they argue, not simply on what they maintain. Provocative outside issues tend to have real-world consequences, not just academic implications, a fact which tends to downplay the academic evaluation of student response. They raise the stakes of what you believe above how you argue it. Even the most open-minded teachers will struggle to expel that anxiety.

The Committee implicitly recognizes the problem with the latest vision’s phrase on not “persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subjects.” But does that qualifier “persistently” effectively handle the real target of the statement: the zealous instructor who can’t stay on point, who just can’t resist the urge to sound off on topical matters of the week, all the while wearing his ideology on his sleeve?


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Penn State

  1. Faculty could help to guide students and ease the transition by informing students of what is expected of them. There should also be more workshops about how to score in University, instead of just peer tutoring and personal help. Not many students would want to invest time in seeking additional academic help which deprives them of the time they could be using to study. Perhaps some tips on websites would be helpful.

  2. I’ve written a response to Bauerlein on my blog,
    Here’s the relevant passage:
    According to Bauerlein, the reforms of HR 64 are bad because straying for even a minute from the syllabus might leave students on ?uncertain grounds.?
    Worse, Bauerlein fears, controversy might create ?an antagonistic atmosphere in the room.? It’s difficult to imagine a more mind-numbing, politically correct approach to the college classroom than someone who worries about antagonism. The biggest problem in higher education is the lack of antagonism, the lack of debate, the pure apathy and robotic head-bobbing that goes on when students and faculty alike should be constantly questioning one another and starting arguments. And Bauerlein wants to do everything possible to stop antagonism, even if it means sacrificing academic freedom. But Bauerlein at least worries a little about the ?unscrupulous administrator.?
    I want to see a healthy debate. That’s why I posted the news about HR 64 on my blog when I could have let it go quietly and no one would have heard about it until it was approved.

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