Academic freedom has garnered extra attention in recent weeks after a GW Law School professor filed a complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights regarding an alleged bias against Muslim students at Catholic University of America.
Law professor John Banzhaf is arguing that the school prevents Muslims on campus from forming student organizations and fulfilling religious obligations, but representatives from the university have shot back that the claims are not supported by student experiences.
The case – the second part of Banzhaf’s ongoing campaign against alleged discrimination at Catholic University – represents his desire to provide a voice on issues that he thinks would otherwise go unnoticed.
“I think it is important that professors, particularly law professors because we have the legal knowledge, go out and bring cases which might seem controversial, because if we don’t, who else will?” Banzhaf said.
He maintains his right under D.C. law to file a complaint of discrimination, even if it does not directly impact him or if he is not representing a specific individual.
Members of the GW community have raised concerns about his appearances in the media and have questioned the strength of his argument.
GW Law professor Robert Tuttle, who specializes in law and religion, has publicly doubted the legitimacy of his colleague’s complaint, voicing his disapproval in a Washington Post article published Oct. 27.
“Because the law allows religious organizations to make certain decisions based on religion, when non-religious organizations would be barred from using religion in that way, I think it is very likely that the [Office of Human Rights] will decide the complaint lacks legal merit, and dismiss it without even asking Catholic to respond,” Tuttle said in an interview with The Hatchet.
Last week, law school Dean Paul Schiff Berman wrote on his blog in response to comments from the extended GW community calling for action to be taken to discourage Banzhaf’s activities.
He could not provide an exact number of complaints, the dean estimated that the school received “a handful of e-mail messages” that were “almost exclusively from alumni and people completely unaffiliated with the University, not from students or faculty.”
Though the dean took others’ concerns into account, he clarified in the post that Banzhaf is not acting on behalf of the law school in pursuing the cases against Catholic “and therefore he is as free as any other citizen to express his ideas and seek legal redress.”
Berman noted that it is important for the law school to support faculty with diverse points of view in their professional endeavors toward the development of creative legal arguments.
“Squelching perspectives because they are unpopular would not only imperil the free academic discourse that is the hallmark of a university, but also lead to a substandard legal education, where students are only exposed to perspectives that are pre-screened by the university,” Berman said in an interview.
Banzhaf defended his legal actions as part of an effort to protect the rights of students at Catholic.
“If you don’t have professors that are knowledgeable in various areas that are willing to come forward and stand up and risk the wrath of their deans and the president of the university, then ultimately if these decisions are wrong, the students are going to suffer,” he said.
Banzhaf has also criticized Catholic’s outward displays of Christianity, saying it discourages students of other faiths from practicing their religion openly.
“I don’t think it’s particularly realistic that any Muslim students are going to come forward and possibly jeopardize their grades and scholarships, or risk animosity from the large population of students that aren’t Muslims,” Banzhaf said.
In June of this year, Banzhaf filed an initial complaint against Catholic, claiming sexual discrimination in the university’s decision to revert to single-sex dorm residence halls after 25 years of allowing co-ed facilities.
Victor Nakas, associate vice president for public affairs at Catholic University, said the school received documents from the human rights office regarding the first complaint about students’ living options, but has not yet received anything on the second.
“Based on everything Banzhaf has stated publicly in his press releases and media appearances, we believe his latest complaint is completely without foundation, as is his first one,” Nakas said. “We have received no complaints from our Muslim students, nor any faith group for that matter, regarding their treatment at Catholic University.”
Catholic University has seen a sharp increase in the number of Muslim students over the last four years, with enrollment more than doubling from 56 to 122 students, according to data in a statement released by Catholic University late last month.
Ann Franke, president of Wise Results, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in higher education law, said professors are given a lot of leeway when expressing academic freedom, as long as it doesn’t cast doubt on his or her competency.
“If a math professor spends a weekend in the town square arguing that two plus two equals five, people would start to question that professor’s competency,” Franke, also a former senior manager with the American Association of University Professors, said.
Banzhaf has every right to follow through with his cases against Catholic University, Franke said, because academic freedom protects professors in outside actions.