At a liberal arts institution, how do educators value all opinions in their classrooms or should they value all opinions in the classroom? That was the question posed at the beginning of a faculty forum that gathered a room full of concerned professors at the College of Charleston, many with questions surrounding their rights to academic freedom following President Donald Trump's election and a recently instituted student complaint website.
In the days following the presidential election, deans and department chairs at CofC received an email from the school's provost and vice president of academic affairs, Brian McGee, saying that he had received several reports of students "perceiving that election discussions in a class meeting were not relevant to course content, were inappropriately one-sided, or were crudely partisan." McGee acknowledged in his email that he had not attempted to confirm the accuracy of most of the accounts — in one case, dismissing the accuracy of the account altogether — and instead cautioned faculty about "demonstrating respect for students and about the intersection of teaching and political commitments."
Five days later on Nov. 15, 2016, College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell issued a campus-wide message acknowledging the deep divisions within the country and reminding students how to report if they've been subjected to a "bias-motivated act" by a campus member. McConnell followed these comments up in December, notifying faculty of the new student complaint website and online application. In his message, McConnell wrote that this new system does not overwrite the old complaint policy and procedures, but instead "offered a way to consolidate reporting measures."
He went on to add, "We believe the site and application will offer students a way to express their concerns, as well as provide faculty, staff, and administrators an excellent tool for improvement." From the initial notice of a few student complaints immediately following the election to the implementation of an online complaint system in less than a month, this is the chain of events that has some faculty members worried about what's to come.
Author and College of Charleston professor W. Scott Poole says he has long advocated for the ability of students to report discrimination and harassment, but points to the system in place long before complaints could be registered online. That includes formal student evaluations of all classroom experiences collected by the school's Office of Academic Affairs, encouraging students to speak directly with department chairs regarding issues in the classroom and violations of professional ethics, and a Title IX office where students can report faculty discrimination. With this all in mind, Poole was left with a few lingering questions.
"What then is the purpose of this new system? Who collates and records the material? How will it be used, especially in the tenure and promotion of junior faculty? What does it even mean to say this new complaint system 'consolidates efforts' when there are already clear channels for students to report on the violation of their rights?" asks Poole. "Second, the provost's email seems to delineate three kinds of unacceptable speech in the classroom descending into what he calls the ‘crudely partisan.' This lacks definition and precision. In my class today, we are reading a section of a book that talks about the pro-Nazi ‘American First' movement in the 1930s represented by Charles Lindbergh. I would be remiss as a teacher if I did not point out that this phrase was used in the inaugural Friday as a kind of mantra. Is this crudely partisan or am I simply stating a historical fact for my students to then discuss and analyze?"
Provost Brian McGee was able to field a few questions from Poole and other faculty members during Monday's forum. McGee quickly denied any connection between his message to faculty regarding questionable political statements following the election and the implementation of the new system weeks later.
"The new system's announcement on Dec. 2 was the result of spectacularly bad timing," said McGee. "It certainly has nothing to do with a substantively new process at the College of Charleston or with any sort of thought about academic freedom or its protection or lack."
McGee pointed toward requirements from the college's regional accreditor as the impetus for the new system, saying they have required for decades a way in which to gather complaints from students on any number of issues. The provost cited the need for a more centralized system to track the school's compliance to what he described as an "evermore intrusive regulator." McGee acknowledged that the announcement of this new record-keeping system came at a time when many where particularly concerned about the climate on campus.
"We are not keeping databases about how many times somebody was complained about, and we are certainly not looking at this as some new and exciting way to find things to use against faculty," McGee told his fellow faculty members.
When questioned about what happens to written complaints once they enter the online intake system, McGee replied that they are counted and sent to the corresponding academic department. These complaints are eventually logged and marked as resolved, but, as one professor asked, what happens to this data? Does it stick around and can it later be harvested for information or is each entry stored under anonymous headings to protect the identities of all those involved?
These are issues of special concern to educators living in the era of the Professor Watchlist
, an online site that catalogues faculty members deemed to "advance leftist propaganda in the classroom." Although, there are currently no College of Charleston professors listed on the site, several South Carolina educators have been targeted. Two Clemson professors are mentioned on the site — one for reportedly traveling to Ferguson, Mo., multiple times to protest the non-indictment of the white police officer who shot Michael Brown" and the other for allegedly calling for the "shaming" of students who took part in a "Cripmas" celebration where they dressed as gang members.
In addition to this new threat hanging over their heads, professors must also contend with guiding students in a national environment where the very nature of fact is called into question. This is of special concern for part-time and non-tenured professors faced with presenting lessons and topics that may be considered controversial to some students and whose motivations may be questions due to their race, gender, or assumed political affiliation.
"We have noticed in the First Year Experience [an academic program designed to help integrate new students] incoming students — particularly this year, but also last year — are less equipped to hear ideas that they haven't heard before and they are less equipped to be confronted about those ideas," said Lynne Ford, professor and associate vice president for the Academic Experience, during Monday's forum. "So we are looking at changing the synthesis seminar that goes along with that to add a module about how to become more accustomed to an intellectual conversation that takes place in classrooms where lots of ideas are explored."
Provost McGee said Monday that information obtained through the new online complaint system will not be used to evaluate junior faculty or discipline professors, but protecting academic freedom remains a topic of conversation amongst educators at the College of Charleston — many of whom find themselves torn between protecting themselves and fulfilling their responsibilities as an educator.
"It's incumbent on us to have those difficult conversations with students and to help them find their path. In my experience, it has never been successful to try to tell someone what to think or what to do. That just doesn't work. You have to sort of lay out the process by which they can reach the conclusions based on a shared understanding of history, literature, whatever," said Ford. "That is the business we're in. ... We do out best to pull together all of the available evidence. It would be a shame if the only available evidence was students comments, because that's really a satisfaction survey, not really an evaluation of the quality of your teaching. If you're a high-quality teacher, you better have made somebody uncomfortable in your classroom."