USenate discussed a controversial topic today: a possible endorsement of UChicago’s Report on Freedom of Expression. Editor-in-Chief Rachel Deal went to check out the meeting.
At today’s University Senate plenary, President Bollinger was a no-show, there was no mention of graduate students unionizing (despite being on the agenda), and the divide between students and faculty was especially prominent in the Senate’s talk about freedom of expression in academia.
The majority of the meeting was devoted to discussing a proposal from the Faculty Affairs Committee to support the University of Chicago’s Report on Freedom of Expression. The proposal was introduced by FAC Chairs Letty Moss-Salentijn and Jim Applegate, and they gave a confusing explanation to why they felt the need for the resolution–Professor Applegate said that the proposal was “pretty closely tied to complaints about faculty” through the forum of anonymous evaluations on CourseWorks that had triggered Title IX investigations, and he believed supporting UChicago’s report would reaffirm that students must “listen respectfully” and “engage in respectful debate about ideas.”
Daniella Urbina, the Vice Chair of the Student Affairs Committee, immediately asked why the faculty felt the need to make such a statement. As students, she said, the SAC did “not believe freedom of expression being threatened at Columbia,” and she wondered what the ramifications would be of supporting a report that led to an alienating letter sent to students. Senator Grace Kelley of the Nursing School agreed, saying that supporting the report would imply support of the letter’s attitude toward “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings.”
Professor Applegate, who admitted that he had never had to deal with teaching controversial topics as a member of the Astronomy department, had a lot to say about how “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” hinder the teaching of controversial topics at the University. He pointed out that the UChicago report did not contain either of the two terms, but he did say that the ideas of “trigger warnings and safe spaces did cause the problems of the Courseworks comments.”
What was the problem of the Courseworks comments? No one else in the room really seemed to know. Luckily, Senator Andy Boyd (Graduate School of the Arts) asked why Courseworks comments were even part of the discussion–”How does an anonymous student comment infringe on the freedom of speech of a faculty member?” he said. In response, Professor Moss-Salentijn talked about how Title IX investigations triggered by anonymous comments on Courseworks had been very “damaging” to the life and standing of faculty members. The content of these anonymous comments was not revealed, but Professors Moss-Salentijn and Applegate seemed convinced that such comments were simply overreactions from people who weren’t given trigger warnings. Senator Logan Wright from the Law School asked if the resolution would impact how Title IX investigations are brought up, and Professor Applegate said no.
As Executive Chair Sharyn O’Halloran said this resolution was only up for discussion, no vote took place. Professor Moss-Salentijn said that there was no timeline for the resolution moving forward, but Professor Applegate affirmed that it was still on the table.