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Academic Freedom: Some Thoughts on the Current Moment and a Guide to the CBA

Robert Ausch UFCT 1460 Treasurer and Grievance Committee

Given the sensitivities of recent events, the UFCT Local 1460 has decided to support individual officers and other union members expressing themselves if they wish, rather than develop a single “union” position that can never really speak for all of the membership. The next two paragraphs reflect only my own views and do not speak for the union, but the following section on academic freedom reflects the union’s interpretation of our current CBA.

There have been many moments in American history when the institutions of the establishment – media, corporations, politics, finance, etc. – coalesce around certain fixed views of global events and “manufacture consent” in Noam Chomsky’s famous words. Regardless of one’s views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is vital that as scholars and faculty of an institution of higher education, we recognize such periods and seek to identify what “consent” hides. The events of the present have a long and complex history that cannot be summarized into simple catechisms, despite the temptation to do so. Speaking personally, as the child of a holocaust survivor and the grandchild of Auschwitz survivors, I recognize both the importance of the state of Israel to my family and Jewish people around the world but can find only sorrow in the violence and humiliation imposed on Palestinians in the name of this state.

As a union representing the working conditions of faculty at Pratt, I believe we have an obligation to help faculty understand their rights in such a moment and make clear that they have the full support of the union to express themselves in the ways their conscience dictates. We also must acknowledge that this is a period of great pain for many members of our community, and while always being sensitive to this pain, higher education must remain a place for the free exchange of ideas. None of us possess any privileged “take” on recent events except to say that history has shown that violence begets violence and all citizens of Israel and Palestine deserve peace, security, and freedom.

Does our contract protect academic freedom?

The language of our most recent contract contains some boilerplate language common in many faculty union CBAs. Article III.1 makes clear that academic freedom is the foundation of our institution.

Academic and professional freedom, creativity, and constructive dissent are essential to the functioning of the Institute as well as being a fundamental working condition. The Institute serves its community as an open intellectual forum where varying shades of opinion may be freely expressed and fairly debated.

However, like many other contemporary agreements it does offer some caveats.

3.2 Academic freedom shall include free discussion of material relevant to a course that a faculty member has been assigned to teach consistent with the published syllabus and established curriculum.

3.4 Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should not introduce into their teaching controversial matter that has no relation to their subject.

The CBA continues to explain that as professionals faculty must be responsible in their speech, so that it “should be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others and for the established policy of their institution, and when properly identifying themselves to outside audiences as associated with the Institute should clearly indicate that they are not institutional spokespeople unless specifically commissioned to serve in such a capacity.”

Faculty are best able to determine what is or is not “related to their subject” – not the administration. It is us who should determine what is and what is not part of our “curriculum.” We must trust that our faculty have the judgment to make these distinctions but also encourage faculty to be aware of increased student sensitivities around events in the world and to ensure that students feel safe in expressing themselves if appropriate.

We must always remember that when political views become weaponized in the university against certain groups and their views declared beyond the boundaries of moral decency, it is only a matter of time before such silencing of dissent extends to more and more of civil society.

If any members of the Pratt community experience a threat to academic freedom or retaliation as a result of their decision to discuss recent events, please contact the union at UFCT1460@gmail.com

In Solidarity

Robert

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