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Academic freedom addressed in Q&A

February 10, 2023

UW-River Falls held a Q&A session on Feb. 3 to address recent concerns with academic freedom at universities across the United States. Jennifer Lattis, Attorney for the UW System Office of General Counsel, spoke on these concerns, including events at Hamline University and universities in Florida, and answered questions from attending faculty.

Lattis served on the Wisconsin Department of Justice as an Assistant Attorney General from 1989 to 2010 and specialized in civil litigation with an emphasis on employment law, constitutional defense, and public records. She joined the Office of General Counsel in 2010.

Lattis began the Q&A session by describing the Hamline case. Professor Erika Lopez Prater, an art history professor at Hamline University, was removed from her position after she showed students a depiction of the Prophet Muhammad in an online class on Islamic art. Lattis said that she believes Prater is now teaching at UW Stout.

Lattis said that, after this removal occurred, she was asked, “what should we do if this happens at [the UW] institution?” Lattis said that academic freedom does not exist in any state constitution or body of law in the United States, but is defined in Black’s Law Dictionary as “the right to teach as one sees fit, but not necessarily the right to teach evil.”

UW-River Falls defines academic freedom in its Resource Guide for Academic Freedom and Records Requests as “the freedom to explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression… [and] the right to speak and write as a member of the university community or as a private citizen without institutional discipline or restraint, on scholarly matters, or on matters of public concern.”

Hamline University is a private institution, and Lattis said that, because of this, it is not subject to the First Amendment, which concerns freedom of speech. Many private institutions, including Hamline University, have incorporated academic freedom policies into their employment contracts. However, UW System institutions, including UW-River Falls, are public institutions, and, as such, can make no law against freedom of speech.

Lattis referenced the UW System code, which states, “A faculty member is entitled to enjoy and exercise… the rights and privileges of academic freedom as they are generally understood in the academic community. This policy shall be observed in determining whether or not just cause for dismissal exists. The burden of proof of the existence of just cause for a dismissal is on the administration.” Lattis said that this policy applies to professors, adjunct faculty members, and instructional academic staff.

Lattis mentioned how, in the Hamline case, Prater was not directly fired, rather, her employment contract was not renewed, resulting in her removal. “You can non-renew somebody for any reason except for an illegal reason,” Lattis said, with an illegal reason being because of a person’s race, gender, gender, or similar reasons. According to the UW System code, “A decision not to renew a probationary appointment or not to grant tenure does not constitute a dismissal.”

Lattis said that one of the most important court cases for academic freedom in Wisconsin was John McAdams v. Marquette University, which took place in 2018. Dr. McAdams, a tenured professor at Marquette University, had criticized Cheryl Abbate, a graduate student and student instructor, for not allowing students to discuss a number of contemporary issues, including gay rights. Abbate had reportedly said, “some opinions are not appropriate, such as racist opinions, sexist opinions . . . you don’t have a right in this class to make homophobic comments.”

McAdams posted his criticism to his personal blog, and after the post was publicized in the national press, Abbate received harassment by email and on her own blog. Marquette then suspended Dr. McAdams. It should be noted that Marquette is a private institution.

The Wisconsin Supreme court ruled that Marquette had wrongly disciplined McAdams and that “the University breached its contract with Dr. McAdams when it suspended him for engaging in activity protected by the contract's guarantee of academic freedom.”

Lattis mentioned another, much older case that established the foundation of academic freedom in Wisconsin. In 1894, following an argument between Richard T. Ely, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, now UW Madison, and schoolteacher Oliver E. Wells, the Board of Regents published the following statement.

“Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

Finally, Lattis discussed events at the University of Florida and Florida’s state university system. The Stop W.O.K.E. (Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees) Act, now known as the Individual Freedom Act, prohibits instruction that promotes concepts related to race, ethnicity, or sex.

One of these concepts is that “a person’s moral character or status as either privileged or oppressed is necessarily determined by his or her race, color, national origin, or sex.”
Lattis said that, in Florida, the state is “zeroing in on what faculty are saying at public institutions of higher education and also in K-12 [schools].” She also said, “[they] have to discipline, even up to termination, of any professor who [teaches these concepts].”

Many of the attending faculty members expressed concern at these events, especially the events at Hamline University. One professor said, “I think people are afraid to say things that may be controversial, that may get complaints because they could be non-renewed and nobody [would know] why.”

In November, 2022, Maria Gallo, Chancellor of UW-River Falls, and David Travis, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at UW-River Falls, sent out an email to UWRF faculty that announced their support of academic freedom “as a vital part of the mission and values of this university.” The email also mentioned that “we will continue working to develop policies and procedures that support you and the important work you do,” and that the provost’s office and the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning are developing potential protocols for handling academic freedom concerns.

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