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Washington State University Office of the Provost

Protecting academic freedoms

Dear Colleagues,

Over the weekend, we became aware that some faculty members, in the interest of fostering a respectful climate for classroom discussion, included some language in class syllabi that has been interpreted as abridging students’ academic freedom and right to freedom of expression. We have worked with these faculty members to clarify, and in some cases modify, course syllabi and associated policies to ensure that students’ free speech rights are recognized and protected. No student will have points docked merely as a result of using terms that may be deemed offensive to some. Blanket restriction of the use of certain terms is not consistent with the values upon which this university is founded.

This incident provides an opportunity to communicate with the entire faculty about a variety of issues.

First, please know that we support the faculty’s academic freedom, right to freedom of expression, and responsibility to fulfill course objectives that are approved by the Faculty Senate. This is fundamental to who we are as an institution. Also, please note that along with these rights comes the responsibility to protect the freedom of expression of all members of our community, including students. That is stated clearly in our own policies and procedures, including the Faculty Responsibilities section of the WSU Faculty Manual:

“As teachers, professors encourage the free pursuit of learning in their students. They hold before them the best scholarly standards of their disciplines. They demonstrate respect for the student as an individual and adhere to their proper role as intellectual guides and counselors…They protect students’ academic freedom.”

Second, we want to emphasize the importance of protecting freedom of expression in the classroom. Section IIB of the Faculty Manual (page 14) covers freedom of expression and accompanying responsibilities:

“Freedom of expression is recognized as one of the essential elements of academic freedom. On a healthy campus, there is respect for the dignity and worth of all members of the campus community and a concern for the rights of others. …It is the policy of Washington State University to support and promote the rights of all individuals to express their view and opinions for or against actions or ideas in which they have an interest… The above rights exist in equal measure for each member of the University community.”

Finally, we recognize that faculty have a strong interest in promoting respectful dialogue in the classroom. Speech and conduct that disrupts the educational process and creates a hostile environment, as that term is defined in WSU’s non-discrimination policy (Executive Policy 15), is not protected. Faculty should consult the WSU’s Office for Equal Opportunity when concerns arise.

Our aim is to protect the freedoms and rights of every member of the WSU community, and to promote learning about diverse perspectives while ensuring that students experience a safe, constructive learning environment.

Thank you.

Dan Bernardo

Interim President,

Washington State University


Richard Zack

Chair, Faculty Senate,

Washington State University

Erica Austin

Interim Co-Provost,

Washington State University


Ron Mittelhammer

Interim Co-Provost,

Washington State University

 

Resources

A variety of resources can help you fulfill the sometimes competing responsibilities of preserving free expression and of providing a safe and constructive learning environment.

In addition to the Faculty Manual, the Provost’s Syllabus Guidelines include information about best practices for communicating details about your course policies. The WSU Teaching Academy offers individualized consultations to the teaching community, and the faculty-led workshops series and Division of Academic Outreach and Innovation can help faculty enhance active learning and engagement. Suggestions for workshops and guest speakers can be sent to teach@wsu.edu.

The Office for Equal Opportunity is a source of information for addressing how to foster constructive and safe learning environments, and to answer questions and address concerns relating to classroom climate issues, discrimination, and harassment. If you have concerns about an individual student’s emotional or mental health, you are encouraged to contact the AWARE Network developed by the Division of Student Affairs, which shares information about how to detect signs of student distress and offers referral assistance. The Office of the Attorney General on campus is available to discuss specific legal issues regarding freedom of speech.

Washington State University