Letter to the editor: AAUP defends academic freedom

Robert Cowgill, English Department Chair

November 6, 2018

Is the utterance of a racially-charged, offensive word in an academic context always worthy of censure? Context makes all the difference. The word in this case was spoken when an Augsburg professor asked students how to engage the language and ideas in James Baldwin’s seminal work, “The Fire Next Time,” which itself uses the word for critical examination of the racism behind it.

The AAUP has always defended academic freedom in the form of speech in the classroom. Academic freedom, which applies to all participants in the classroom, includes the right to engage difficult topics. Even potentially triggering or offensive speech, if relevant to a course’s subject or reading material, is covered by the blanket value of academic freedom.

In the wake of the current controversy, we want to emphasize, as stated in an AAUP white paper “On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes,” the need “to foster an atmosphere respectful and welcoming to all persons.”

The AAUP also posits “it is neither harassment nor discriminatory treatment of a student to hold up to close criticism an idea or viewpoint […]. Ideas that are germane to a subject under discussion in a classroom cannot be censored because a student […] might be offended.”

But that’s not the end of the situation. The AAUP believes this incident should be the occasion to foster more conversation about the appropriate use of controversial speech in the classroom, and calls on students, professors, and staff at Augsburg to find forums in which this conversation can honestly and safely happen. This incident provides an occasion for listening and mutual respect and should not be used as an opportunity to shame, or to shut down, as the AAUP puts it, the “vigorous exchanges of ideas necessary for teaching and learning in higher education.”


Members of the Executive Committee of the MN-AAUP

Professor Robert Cowgill, Augsburg

Professor Katherine Bjork, Hamline

Professor Bruce Campbell, St. Johns

Professor Sadrdin Moosavi, University of Minnesota Mankato

This article was originally published in the Nov. 9, 2018 issue.