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AAUP votes to censure U of Nebraska for alleged violations of academic freedom in Courtney Lawton case

Inside Higher Ed - Mon, 06/18/2018 - 00:00

The American Association of University Professors on Saturday voted to censure the University of Nebraska at Lincoln for alleged violations of academic freedom in a politically loaded case involving an adjunct lecturer.

A Symbolic Punishment

The voice vote, taken at AAUP’s annual meeting in Washington, was decisive and probably unsurprising: Nebraska’s censure seemed likely last month, when the AAUP issued an investigative report on the now locally infamous Courtney Lawton suspension. In that report, the association concluded that the university bowed to political pressure in removing Lawton, a former adjunct instructor of English and current graduate student, from the classroom after she flipped off an undergraduate student activist.

The August incident happened as the undergraduate was campaigning on campus for Turning Point USA, the self-described grassroots conservative organization behind the Professor Watchlist website, which many professors say distorts their views and threatens academic freedom.

In widely shared student video, Lawton calls the undergraduate a “neo-fascist Becky” who “wants to destroy public schools, public universities, hates DACA kids,” and puts up her middle finger.

At first, Nebraska removed Lawton from the classroom citing security concerns. But as Republican state lawmakers began to speak out against Lawton and demand “accountability” with regard to the campus political climate, Nebraska said she would not teach again.

Based on AAUP’s report, administrators now say that Lawton was permanently suspended from teaching because she physically blocked access to the student activist’s table. But Lawton and others who witnessed the incident deny that. Nebraska reportedly says it has a second security video that captures that part of the dispute, but it did not share that video with AAUP.

Stephen Ramsay, Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor of English at Nebraska, attended the annual meeting and spoke in favor of censure prior to the vote. Identifying himself as the representative for the university’s AAUP advocacy chapter, Ramsay said that this year “has been a very difficult one for my institution.”

Yet he said he agreed with the “disquieting” conclusion of AAUP’s report, that there is "little doubt that political pressure played a significant role in the Lawton case; in one sense, it is at the very heart of it." He encouraged those presenting to vote for censure.

Nebraska has previously criticized AAUP’s report as inaccurate. Deb Fiddelke, a university spokesperson, said in a statement after the vote that AAUP erred in asserting at the meeting that Lawton was not afforded a hearing prior to her suspension.

“It’s shocking the AAUP would base its actions on such conflicting statements and glaring inaccuracies,” Fiddelke said.

AAUP’s report says that Lawton initially agreed to a suspension from teaching, but only because she believed it was for her own safety as her case began to attract attention.

Lifting Sanction and Censure

At its meeting, AAUP also lifted symbolic sanctions or censures from two other institutions.

The University of Iowa saw the removal of a sanction imposed in 2016, over concerns about a failure of shared governance in the presidential search that ended in the hiring of Bruce Harreld. AAUP found in 2015 that the Iowa Board of Regents disbanded a faculty committee involved in the search to gain control over it.

Faculty members at Iowa previously criticized the sanction, saying the campus shouldn’t be blamed for the board’s actions -- even if Harreld was unpopular.

The university referred requests for comment about the vote to Russell Ganim, a professor of world languages on campus and the current Faculty Senate president.

“We are delighted by the news of the sanction removal,” he said in a statement, describing a now-strong “partnership" between the senate, board and local AAUP chapter. “We believe to have established a model of collaboration that will benefit shared governance at [the university] not just now but in the future.”

With AAUP leaders saying they had addressed concerns that resulted in the censure of Stillman College’s administration, the association voted to take that institution off the censure list, too.

Stillman landed on the list in 2009 over concerns about the termination of Ekow O. Hayford, a longtime tenured professor of business. At the time, AAUP found that Hayford was fired without due process after he publicly criticized the president of the college, a historically black institution in Alabama. The college maintained that Hayford had violated a Faculty Handbook prohibition against spreading “malicious gossip.”

AAUP said Saturday that Stillman’s new administration had accepted its annual suggestions about bringing its faculty standards more into line with the norms of academic freedom.

Stillman did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the vote.

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Canadian Supreme Court upholds denial of accreditation to proposed Christian law school

Inside Higher Ed - Mon, 06/18/2018 - 00:00

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled 7 to 2 Friday that a law society acted reasonably in denying accreditation to a proposed Christian law school because of its policy prohibiting students and faculty from “engaging in sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”

A five-justice majority found that the decision by the Law Society of Upper Canada to deny accreditation to Trinity Western University’s proposed law school “represents a proportionate balance between the limitation on freedom of religion guaranteed” by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms “and the statutory objectives that the LSUC sought to pursue.”

"The LSUC’s enabling statute requires the Benchers [members of the governing board of the law society] to consider the overarching objective of protecting the public interest in determining whether a particular law school should be accredited. The LSUC was entitled to conclude that equal access to the legal profession, diversity within the bar, and preventing harm to LGBTQ law students were all within the scope of its duty to uphold the public interest. The LSUC has an overarching interest in protecting the values of equality and human rights in carrying out its functions," the majority wrote.

Two other justices upheld the LSUC’s decision to deny Trinity Western’s proposed law school accreditation, though they disagreed with some of the five-member majority’s reasoning.

The legal landscape in Canada differs from that of the U.S. However, the Trinity Western case addresses the same kinds of tensions between values of nondiscrimination and religious freedom that can be found at many Christian colleges in the U.S. that have similar codes of conduct prohibiting same-sex activity.

The LSUC, which recently changed its name to the Law Society of Ontario, celebrated the Supreme Court ruling as a vindication of its role in promoting equal access to legal education.

“We are particularly pleased that the court recognized that our statutory mandate to uphold the public interest includes promoting a diverse bar and ensuring that there are no inequitable barriers to those seeking access to the legal profession,” the law society’s treasurer, Paul Schabas, said in a written statement.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers also issued a statement welcoming the ruling. The association said in its statement that it had intervened in the appeals process to argue that the requirement that Trinity Western faculty subscribe to a statement of faith as a condition of employment violates academic freedom and inhibits the protection and promotion of diversity that should be expected in Canadian legal education.

“The majority of the Supreme Court accepted that there is a link between legal education and equality, diversity, and the competence of the legal profession,” said CAUT’s executive director, David Robinson. “This case underlines that it is vital that faculty and students not be constrained by any dogma or proscribed doctrine in any form, as this is the basis for promoting and protecting academic freedom.”

Trinity Western said in a statement it was disappointed in the ruling, which the university said “diminishes the value of pluralistic diversity in Canada.”

“In a very long complex ruling, with four sets of reasons, eight of nine judges agree that TWU’s religious freedom is violated but the majority still uphold the law societies' decision not to approve the law school,” the university said.

“The court ruling constrains TWU’s quest to establish a law school and offer 60 new law school seats to Canadian students.”

Trinity Western, which is located in British Columbia, first began attempting to establish a law school in 2012 but confronted opposition from the law societies in British Columbia and Ontario. The proposed law school was to offer a specialty program in charity law.

Two justices dissented in Friday's ruling, arguing that "the only proper purpose of an LSUC accreditation decision is to ensure that individual applicants are fit for licensing. Because there are no concerns relating to competence or conduct of prospective TWU graduates, the only defensible exercise of the LSUC's statutory discretion in this case would have been for it to approve TWU's proposed law school."

"Moreover, the decision not to accredit TWU's proposed law school is a profound interference with the TWU community's freedom of religion," the two dissenting justices wrote. "It interferes with that community's expression of religious belief through the practice of creating and adhering to a biblically grounded covenant. Even were the public interest to be understood broadly, accreditation of TWU's proposed law school would not be inconsistent with the LSUC's statutory mandate. In a liberal and pluralist society, the public interest is served, and not undermined, by the accommodation of difference."

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