Meghan Xanthos: The other side of academic freedom

Meghan Xanthos, a freshman majoring in English, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

Board of Trustees chair Nelson Carbonell stood up for a big topic last week: academic freedom.

Taking to the floor of the Faculty Senate, Carbonell stressed that freedom to publish research and teach controversial topics need to be protected for both tenured and non-tenured faculty at GW – regardless of whether their work offends donors.

It may seem like academic freedom is impenetrable at universities, but it can be punctured in even the smallest ways, like the right to voice political beliefs in the classroom.

That’s what we saw at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse last year, where assistant geography professor Rachel Slocum found herself at the center of the free speech debate. During the government shutdown last fall, she sent out an email to her students stating that part of an assignment could not be completed until “the Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives agrees to fund the government.”

Now, you’ve probably heard similarly snarky remarks in your own classrooms at GW. Depending on your political affiliations, you’ve likely either rolled your eyes or nodded in agreement. Either way, it’s unlikely that you would send in complaints and negative comments, eventually resulting in a dean forcing the professor to write an apology.

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse is generally pegged as a liberal campus with liberal professors – and the same can be said of GW. Conservative students have said that the sometimes feel like they’re under attack.

But GW hosts independent, open minded students, and the politically-charged opinion of one professor in one passive aggressive email is not going to indoctrinate students. Whether a professor is a liberal or a conservative, expressing their views can bring perspective to a debate in a classroom setting, or add depth to mere facts.

Granted, professors can cross a line. Professors’ opinions should never directly target a student’s beliefs or identity in a negative way. That’s harassment, and professors who do that should be forced to do more than just apologize.

But at Wisconsin, the professor was making a broad political statement in an email, not tearing down a specific student in class for a question they had or a comment they made.

In fact, a simple statement from a professor based upon an educated opinion can allow for students to view alternate perspectives. We might not like it now, but we’ll eventually come to appreciate the wisdom and ideas – agree or disagree – that professors can impart.

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