University of Cincinnati: Evaluation of Academic Freedom Policies · 09 March 2005

Filed under: Commentary, Ohio


By Sara Dogan--03/10/05

One of the key stories to come out of last Tuesday's Senate hearings on Ohio Senate Bill 24 was that of a student of the University of Cincinnati whose philosophy professor blatantly violated his academic freedoms. As David Horowitz related to the assembled panel, the student's professor told the class that they should "vote the f*#@ing Republicans out of office this November." This professor also called President Bush a "douche-bag" on a regular basis and harassed the student because he disagreed with the professor's political views.

Columnist Mike Harden wrote a column for the Columbus Dispatch in which he quotes several University of Cincinnati administrators who were upset that the student who Horowitz mentioned in his testimony did not file an official grievance with the University.

Harden claims that the charge "blindsided" UC Vice-President for Government Regulations Gregory Vehr who is quoted as saying "it's the first we heard of it, and we do have a grievance procedure."

Vice Provost for Academic Personnel Karen Faaborg added that "There has been no complaint in the departmental office, in the dean's office or in my office."

It is true that the student whose experience David Horowitz cited in his testimony has not yet filed a complaint with the University. But an examination of the University of Cincinnati's student policies reveals that he likely was not aware that his professor's abusive conduct was forbidden by official university policy or that it was possible to file a grievance based on his classroom experience.

In an attempt to clarify UC's grievance procedure, I spoke with University Ombudsman Lillian Santa-Maria who directed me to UC's Undergraduate Student Grievance Policies and Procedures (part of a packet entited "Students Right to Know" which is prominently displayed in the student section of UC's website).

"If a student feels that he is being treated improperly and being discriminated on the basis of his political beliefs by a professor, evaluated with bias, those things are covered under the undergraduate student grievance procedure," Santa-Maria stated. She referred me to section 2 under the heading "Applicability" which states that grievance procedures are applicable in cases where "a student believes he/she has been subjected to other improper treatment," and maintained that complaints regarding partisan diatribes or abuse in the classroom were covered under this stanza.

Santa-Maria is correct that it is technically possible for a student to file a grievance due to a professor's partisan abuse; but the key question is whether students are aware of this option and whether they know that such conduct is a violation of the university rules.

The University of Cincinnati in fact has a very strict standard regarding the introduction of controversial political topics in the classroom. The Rules of the University, Section 50-7-01-D states that "Instructional personnel shall enjoy academic freedom, but, this does not mean license free from all responsibility; nor the use of class time to present propaganda on controversial issues; nor the use of class time to discuss matter that are not germane to the specialty which they have been appointed to teach; nor in class seek to elicit and/or attack the views of any student on a subject not germane to the officially announced subject matter of the course." [reference: http://www.uc.edu/trustees/rules/RuleDetail.asp?ID=211]

This policy explicitly condemns the behavior of the professor in question, yet there is little likelihood that the student who was abused has ever seen it. It is hidden away in the "Academic" section of the extremely lengthy "Rules of the University" where students are unlikely to come across it.

It is also notable that this policy is framed exclusively in terms of the professorial responsibility to keep politics out of the classroom, rather than in terms of students' rights to an education free from political indoctrination or harassment. The Rules of the University do contain a section devoted to the rights and responsibilities of students, but the statements on students' academic freedoms here are vague. Section 40-5-01-A states that "institutional authority shall not be employed to inhibit such intellectual and personal development of students as is promoted by exercise of their rights and responsibilities both on and off campus" and section 40-5-03-1a states that the university environment "should encourage and protect free intellectual inquiry, including the examination of unorthodox or controversial ideas." These vague statements are all that the section dedicated to students' rights offers on the issue of students' academic freedoms.

Notably, the students section of the Rules of the University also references the 1967 "Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students" which was endorsed by the American Association of University professors and other organizations and states that the University "hereby adopts [the statement] in principle" as "a guide to the interpretation and implementation of the rights and responsibilities set forth in this chapter." This statement affirms the inseparability of "the freedom to teach and the freedom to learn" and holds that "Students should be free to take reasoned exception to the data or views offered in any course of study and to reserve judgment about matters of opinion." Despite this reference to academic freedom, the 1967 statement's precepts don't serve to clarify anything for students since the statement is merely mentioned by name, and not quoted, and no link is provided to the text.

In sum, the University of Cincinnati has a fairly comprehensive policy forbidding professors from using the classroom for purposes of political indoctrination. Yet because this policy is framed exclusively in terms of professorial responsibility and is contained wholly within a section of the Rules of the University that students are unlikely to read, it has little benefit or relevance for the unfortunate UC student who was told by his professor that he should "vote the f*#@ing republicans out of office this November." And while the student grievance procedure guidelines may technically cover such abuses (and the student in question is now considering filing a formal complaint), the lack of a specific policy addressing political harassment or indoctrination in the classroom makes it highly questionable whether any student would bring such a case to the attention of the university, especially given that the grievance policies explicitly mention filing complaints on the grounds of harassment due to sex, race, religion, sexual-orientation and national origin, among other categories, yet exclude political views from this list.

Nowhere in this policy or others is any explicit mention made of how a student can file an official complaint against a faculty member for violation of the University of Cincinnati's academic freedom policy as espoused in the Rules of the University.

Senate Bill 24 addresses this lack directly, stating that "The board of trustees…shall adopt a grievance procedure by which a student, faculty member, or other instructor may seek redress for an alleged violation of any of the rights specified by that institution's policy" and "shall provide students, faculty, and instructors with notice of the rights and grievance procedure by publication in the institution's course catalog, student handbook, and web site."

If the administrators of the University of Cincinnati are truly committed to protecting the academic freedoms of both students and faculty, they should gladly endorse Senate Bill 24 as an organic extension of their existing policies.