Following a link at Inside Higher Ed, I stumbled across a new report from a group called Free Exchange on Campus (FEC), an umbrella organization of academic establishment groups and their allies (including the AAUP, the ACLU, and the American Federation of Teachers) that in practice seems dedicated not so much to “free exchange” but to opposing conservative critics of higher education.
Their new report, which purports to expose the tactics and funding of conservative critics of higher ed, and which also attempts to make the larger point that our critique of higher education as a home of censorship, intolerance towards Christians and conservatives (especially when the two are combined), and all-too-common partisan quackery is overblown and “manufactured.”
Because this is a blog post and not a longer article, I’ll focus my critique of the report on their description of the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom’s work and cases. (First, however, I’d like to thank Free Exchange on Campus for lumping us together with such esteemed individuals and organizations as David Horowitz, ACTA, and many other members of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy. It’s not often that members of the “religious right” get included in the cool-kids club.)
While I don’t have any quibbles with their description of our work (they say we “support Christian students on campus in their fights against bias and discrimination”), they dramatically minimize its scope by focusing on two cases (mentioning a total of only five cases) and making the completely baseless charge that we essentially stampede into litigation for public-relations purposes before the internal university appeals process has a chance to work itself out. (In fact, our longstanding policy and practice is to exhaust administrative appeals before pursuing litigation, and that is clear from reading our complaints — which are available for viewing on our website.)
First, let’s just be clear: The Alliance Defense Fund has been involved in far more than five cases on campus. Our very publicly available university case page lists more than 50 federal cases. Mentioning five does more than just minimize our work (I think I can get over the slight): It goes a long way toward minimizing the scope of the problem itself. Of course the report omits another case list as well, FIRE’s, which is so long that it is positively depressing. But of course dealing with the real numbers — and the multiple court decisions holding universities liable — cuts against the argument that our critiques are “manufactured.”
Second, their descriptions of the two cases they do focus on — Christian DeJohn’s case against Temple and Emily Brooker’s case against Missouri State — are interesting primarily in their omissions. While I was (and remain) disappointed that the trial court dismissed Christian’s retaliation claims, they were not dismissed because the court found that he “had been dismissed for academic reasons.” As I explained at the time, in the key part of his ruling, the judge found there was evidence that his primary professor had discriminated against him, but the jury would not be permitted to consider that evidence because the professor had “qualified immunity.”
More important, while FEC does note that Christian prevailed on his speech-code claim (and ultimately forced the university to pay almost $200,000 in legal fees), FEC completely ignores the fact that Temple’s former code is substantially similar to speech codes currently maintained at hundreds of universities. How can a controversy be “manufactured” so long as universities — by policies maintained across the nation — systematically violate the fundamental free-speech rights of their students?
FEC’s description of Emily Brooker’s case is laughable. They wrongly critique her for somehow failing to pursue her administrative remedies, when anyone who reads the complaint will note that she in fact had a formal hearing in front of her academic department. That formal hearing was a “star chamber” farce, featuring direct questioning of her religious beliefs and threats to withhold her degree unless she changed those beliefs. It is to the university’s credit that it settled quickly (indeed, I continue to admire the university’s post-complaint handling of the case), but it is hardly Emily’s fault if she didn’t go above and beyond the university’s own prescribed processes before filing.
But what is truly egregious is FEC’s whitewash of the severity of the case. In the aftermath of the settlement, the university initiated an external review of the department, and the findings were stunning:
Does the academic environment of the School of Social Work promote learning and stimulate an honest and open dialogue in which intellectual differences are shared and respected among students, faculty and staff?
Many students and faculty stated a fear of voicing differing opinions from the instructor or colleague. This was particularly true regarding spiritual and religious matters however, students voiced fears about questioning faculty regarding assignments or expectations. In fact “bullying” was used by both students and faculty to characterize specific faculty. It appears that faculty have no history of intellectual discussion/debate. Rather, differing opinions are taken personally and often result in inappropriate discourse.
Do the faculty and staff of the School of Social Work model and communicate the CSWE Code of Ethics for students in the program?
There is an atmosphere where the Code of Ethics is used in order to coerce students into certain belief systems regarding social work practice and the social work profession. This represents a distorted use of the Social Work Code of Ethics in that the Code of Ethics articulates that social workers should respect the values and beliefs of others.
One of the investigators’ recommendations was to literally close down the School of Social Work, disband the faculty, and restart it after a short waiting period. But I suppose that an entire academic department at a major state university engaged in such egregious “bullying” against religious students is just one more piece of evidence that our critiques of higher education are “manufactured.”