Academic Freedom, Free Speech and Due Process: What's really at stake at UNM

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We have been following an interpersonal conflict at the University of New Mexico that centers on issues of due process, graduate student-faculty interaction, sexual freedom and the right of both students and faculty to private lives. (If you're new around here or you need to get caught up you can see all of our previous posts on the matter here.)

One of the things that made it difficult to appreciate all of the layers of the conflict was a lack of access to primary source documents. We have now received a copy of the March 10 letter from the Deputy Provost to those who had petitioned for a review, by the Faculty Senate Ethics and Advisory Committee, of the extramural activities of one of the professors. After carefully considering the content and implications of this we have determined that it is in the public interest to publish that letter here in its entirety. In doing so, we were aware that extracts had appeared in the media. (You can click here for a PDF of the scanned letter or click on the images below.)

When people have only partial information there is a tendency to fill in the blanks with rumor, speculation and misinformation. We are publishing this letter to ensure that people are aware of the facts relating to the two reviews undertaken by the university administration. We appreciate that a number of members of faculty remain deeply concerned about the acts they sought a review of, and we respect both their right to hold those views and to raise them under University policies on the reporting of suspected misconduct. Nevertheless this is the second review the University has conducted of this complaint, and absent new evidence, little can be gained and much lost by pursuing this line of action. As the letter states, the matter is now "concluded" from the Adminstration's point of view. The observations and conclusions reached by the Provost's Office are congruent with our own observations based on interviews of the people involved and the documents examined.

We believe that a more productive process than pursuing this further would be an open and collegial discussion of the legitimate and important issues raised both in the original complaint and the review. These include asking whether the off campus activities of faculty and students can influence the learning environment, the potential for the inappropriate use of power differentials between the two and about the possibility or perception of differential treatment of students who do or do not participate in such activities. Especially important is the creation of safe places to discuss disagreements about workplace issues in a non-adversarial way.

Inherent in the natural rights of both faculty and students is that of citizenship, and this is explicitly recognised by both the American Association of University Professors, and by extension the UNM Faculty Handbook. Those rights to a life outside of the campus carry with them the obligation to maintain professionalism in the pursuit of instruction and research, and in relationships between faculty and students on campus. There will doubtless be questions raised as to the appropriateness of current policies, given the concerns expressed, and these can be discussed using the proper faculty governance channels. But as stressed by the Deputy Provost, there is a prevailing emphasis in the current policies of de minimis non curat lex, that tribunals must concern themselves with matters of substantive importance, which protects the rights of individuals from instrumental harassment. This upholds the principle of the presumption of innocence in which the burden of substantive proof must lie with the accuser. We further note that the Policy on Academic Freedom and Tenure states (Appendix VIII) that "It is not intended that the [Ethics] Committee be used as a weapon in personal conflicts". Thus we support the views of those faculty, echoed in this letter, who believe that the actions of those who pursued the complaint constitute a greater potential threat to the academic environment than the original actions of the accused. While conscience sometimes dictates a need to go outside due process and protest against injustice, there is no evidence that this is the case here, and continued efforts to export the conflict off the campus can only aggravate matters further.

The policies of the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers recognise the need for balance when addressing conflict, and emphasise the dangers of sanctioning those whose personal beliefs and practices are either outside of the dominant discourse, or differ considerably from our own because doing so opens the door to much wider conflict, and also to the suppression of free speech. Deputy Provost Holder clearly recognized this when he wrote in his letter, "we have to be guided by our carefully crafted polices and avoid at all costs trampling on the rights of any one of us, no matter the feelings any extramural activities may provoke."

Inevitably the fact that this case involved graduate students has focussed discussion on questions of power and its use within faculty-student relations. While it is our intent to comment further on this in relation to the published research, we think it appropriate to stress that all relationships between any persons involve inequities, and that as Michel Foucault has argued, it is not power itself that is evil, but the uses to which it is put.

In conclusion we can do no better than to urge all to take to heart the words of the Deputy Provost to promote "healing to return the atmosphere to a professional one that will enable everyone to get back to teaching, scholarship, and service".

Michael Goodyear
Elizabeth Wood

Holder letter page 1 thumbnail click to expand Holder letter page two click to expand Holder letter page three click to expand

Click the thumbnails to expand images (You may need to click twice: first on the image above and the on the resulting image, to see the image at its full size.). Or, just click here for a PDF file of the scanned letter.

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