Statement on academic freedom, DEI initiatives, and Aug. 28 Faculty Senate vote

It has come to our attention at KSU AAUP that there is an administrative initiative to remove all references to DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) from Kennesaw State University websites at all levels, and that all DEI language pertaining to hiring must also be removed. In terms of Academic Freedom, there has also been a push to align our teaching with the revised BOR definition of Academic Freedom, particularly the following criterion:

“Students should be provided an environment conducive to learning, be free from faculty or institutional coercion to make personal political or social choices, and be evaluated based on their academic performance, not factors that are irrelevant to that performance such as their personal beliefs. Similarly, faculty and staff have the right to be unburdened by irrelevant factors such as ideological tests, affirmations, and oaths, and should instead be hired and evaluated based on relevant factors such as their achievement and the success of students.”

Our reading here is that there is a limit to what the administration can require of faculty. In our understanding, the administration has clear authority over all materials that represent the university, such as websites, as well as anything related to hiring or admissions. However, under the BOR’s academic freedom language, scholarship or teaching is clearly a faculty domain, rendering the administration without legitimate authority to instruct faculty on syllabus content or research directions.

While nuanced language within these policies requires careful interpretation, the administration should not have the authority to preemptively tell faculty to remove DEI or other specific content from their syllabus. It can, however, intervene in cases where legitimate concerns are raised by students or others. Such concerns might include allegations of coercion to adopt specific ideological views unrelated to the subject matter or complaints regarding a professor’s introduction of personal ideological commentary not relevant to the course during class time. The exact process and potential consequences of such administrative intervention are not explicitly defined.

Our chapter concurs with AAUP National President Irene Mulvey that  “Academic freedom for teaching and research is grounded in scholarly expertise, and includes the protection of extramural speech.” And, as she points out “administrators should [not] be the deciders in DEI-based challenges to academic freedom.” Mulvey, citing an article from Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder, reminds us that, as administrators, department chairs and deans “ often lack the requisite knowledge and expertise about academic freedom (and the scholarly field under consideration) to make informed decisions. Certainly, any challenge to academic freedom requires faculty involvement in the form of an elected faculty body or review committee.” Finally, Mulvey reminds us, and we concur, that pitting academic freedom and the values of DEI initiatives against each other creates a false binary. These two important value systems “should not be seen in competition.”

Under the emerging climate, we are concerned that there may be groups who will be notifying students that they should monitor professors and complain. We recognize that students and other stakeholders may have differing views on what constitutes appropriate content in an educational setting. It is wise for faculty to be prepared to provide scholarly context for material that may be questioned and to clarify that a diverse range of perspectives is welcomed within the class, without any particular ideological stance being required to succeed in the course.

Finally, we are aware that there are revisions to the KSU Faculty Handbook that will be presented to the Senate on Monday, August 28. Within the proposed changes is a significant deletion under section 2.1 on Academic Freedom that we find very concerning. The following protections are being removed from the existing handbook. These include protection from:

  1. External and internal political pressure;
  2. Undue interference in course content;
  3. Retaliation or reprisal for expressing unpopular perspectives related to research, curriculum, pedagogy, and organizational procedures; and
  4. Undue interference in grading and assessment criteria.

Within this context, it is our chapter’s hope that members of the Kennesaw State University Faculty Senate will withhold support on this proposed revision. 

Please notify us at AAUP if you have a Dean, chair, or outside entity, other than an accreditation organization, telling you preemptively what you may or may not have in your syllabus, readings, or lectures. It is our understanding that this is a violation of Academic Freedom as defined by the BOR.

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