New Academic Freedom Statement sent to Board of Trustees for approval

Cassie Follman ’20 News Editor

This week, an ad hoc committee comprised of Smith faculty produced a new Student Academic Freedom statement. Smith faculty then voted in approval of sending the statement to the Board of Trustees for final approval. If approved by the board, the statement will be implemented and sent out to the Smith community. The Sophian requested to send a reporter to the vote but was denied.

Government Professor Alice Hearst was a member on the committee and shared her thoughts on the statement with The Sophian. Professor Hearst explained that the, “current statement ran together academic freedom and first amendment too much,” and that the new one, “separates academic freedom and First Amendment freedom.” According to the committee, there was a desire to define more clearly what academic freedom entailed, and clarify that no one, students or faculty, can “refuse to accommodate.”

Professor Hearst concluded that faculty and students need to be, “aware that what you say will reflect on [the] institution and strive to be accurate.” She emphasized that faculty and staff in particular need to consider this in light of the new statement.

Professor Marc Lendler, while not on the committee, voted in favor with other Smith faculty in favor of the new statement, also spoke with The Sophian. “Smith’s Academic Freedom code was written in 1992 and some on the faculty felt it should be revisited in light of the current debates,” Lendler, who teaches “Free Speech in America,” said.

“I think the proposed new statement strengthens the protections of academic freedom of the older statement in some ways,” Lendler said. “For instance, it states that faculty are ‘free to determine the relevant content and manner of learning’ for their classes, subject to professional standards and that they will be free from ‘censorship, discipline, or intimidation’ in doing so.”

He added, that, “The new statement properly includes students under the umbrella of academic freedom, and protects the right of student groups (as well as other community members) to invite speakers of their own choosing. … The most important point it makes is that when speakers are invited, ‘Others may not abridge the speaker’s freedom of expression.’ I hope the Smith community can come through this with a greater appreciation of why views that might be disturbing or heretical to some members of the community should be tolerated.”

Lendler also told The Sophian about a survey conducted for an honors thesis last year of Smith students. The survey reflected national surveys of a sharp decline in support for free thought and expression on college campuses in the past 15 years. There is demonstrated belief that the statement could help “reverse” this thinking.

 “I want to acknowledge that this new code contains gray areas which will be subject to future interpretations, as any code would be,” Lendler said. “Those interpretations might be different than mine.” Despite this, he still fully supported the new statement, “But I think this statement provides a good framework for resolving future controversies, and I hope the Trustees approve it.”

Lendler expressed some dismay that The Sophian was not permitted to cover the vote. “It is disappointing that The Sophian was not permitted to send a reporter to cover the debate at the last faculty meeting. The new statement applies to students as well as faculty, and it would have been beneficial for students to have seen a report on the debates.”

It has been decided that a separate statement concerning inclusion, diversity and equity will be issued separately. “Some in the faculty, including myself, felt those two subjects should be dealt with in separate statements,” Lendler said.  

Professor Hearst told The Sophian that the committee will work on this new statement concerning equity with, “new Vice President of Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity David T. Carreon Bradley, students and faculty.”

It is not known when the new statement concerning equity will be presented to the Smith community.