Faculty meeting discusses academic freedom

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A DePauw University faculty meeting held Thursday was closed to students in order to discuss the University's policy on academic freedom.

“It was closed because it was more or less a chance for us to share the interactions that some of us have had,” said Howard Brooks, professor of physics and astronomy, and chairperson of faculty meetings.

The concern about academic freedom and its impact on students came mostly from the Psychology and Neuroscience department. Faculty were thinking about proposing changes to the University's academic policy that would more clearly define how the school would address certain topics of concern. A point of concern was how safe spaces should be conducted.

The idea of academic freedom first came about in 1940. DePauw draws its policies on academic freedom from the 1940’s statement on academic freedom and tenure from the American Association of University Professors.

The meeting was reported to be like a conversation about all of the elements of academic freedom and what should be discussed in classrooms. “What I admired about the conversation is that it was a difficult conversation that people really engaged in,” said Anne Harris, vice president for academic affairs.

The meeting was based on the University of Chicago’s statement from last January about how they valued freedom of expression. No legislation has been proposed to change the academic freedom policy in place at DePauw.

There was push back from professors about the ideas of banning trigger warnings and safe spaces. “Here at DePauw there was a resistance to that intolerance to safe spaces and intolerance to trigger warnings,” Harris said.

Part of concern was how the University has defined academic freedom. “It’s not to be confused with freedom of speech,” Harris said. “Academic freedom really is what do professors have the freedom to talk about in the classroom.”

The professors who met talked about ways to prevent students from feeling marginalized or hurt. “Part of the solution is we need to preface these things,” Brooks said. “Putting things in context was discussed.”

Students at DePauw are generally supportive of the academic freedom on campus. “Personally, I think that it is important that people are challenged by different ideas that aren’t necessarily the ideas that they have now,” said sophomore Emily Troyer.

Faculty members were also collectively informed about how bias incidents in the classrooms are handled. The first step in handling a biased incident in a classroom is bringing it to a level of discussion and then working to ensure professors are aware of their impact and how they can intervene in biased situations in their classrooms.

The response to biased incidents works to make sure people understand how what they are saying impacts those around them.

Harris feels responses to bias incident and academic freedom go well together and both make DePauw a respectable academic institution.

“Academic freedom preserves the freedom to make mistakes,” Harris said, “but the responsibility to address that mistake is still there.”