By Stephen Neukam
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs DonnaJean Fredeen sparked fears about academic freedom when she issued a statement to faculty in which she condemned “divisive” commentary on Westminster Choir College (WCC) in classrooms in an email on Oct. 3.
In the shadow of the statement, at least one faculty member was warned that incivility could result in disciplinary action, according to Associate Professor of history and philosophy and American Association of University Professors (AAUP) Chapter President Joel Feldman, who declined to offer specifics.
Fredeen denounced classroom discussion of pending WCC litigation as “both inappropriate and disruptive of university operations,” and characterized such dialogue as “wholly unrelated to teaching pedagogy and the approved curricula for our academic programs.”
Fredeen wrote that Rider administrators “believe that our faculty have a responsibility in the classroom to deliver the disciplinary topics required by a course according to the description in the course catalog. That responsibility does not include commentary about private litigation that is unrelated to coursework, or opinions regarding the transition.”
The threat of discipline for incivility was not necessarily for actions in the classroom, according to Feldman. Instead, it was for behavior outside of the classroom and on social media.
The litigation stems from Rider’s attempt to sell WCC to a Chinese company, Kaiwen, which was terminated in July. The court proceedings continue, with the Westminster Foundation and other individuals signed on to a suit fighting to keep the choir college in Princeton.
Feldman said he believes Fredeen’s statement was an attempt to silence the faculty’s opposition to the university’s handling of WCC.
“This is an attack on our academic freedom,” said Felman. “The intent is to create a chilled atmosphere for discussion of this issue. It is a form of bullying and intimidation.”
The AAUP issued an official statement on Oct. 8, which stated “we vehemently disagree with the Provost’s statements and will defend the right of our members to speak out on any and all matters of concern to the campus community and to take whatever positions their conscience leads them to.”
“We will vigorously oppose any attempt to curtail the academic freedom of our members in the name of ‘civility.’”
Adjunct Assistant Professor of music theory and history R. Douglas Helvering said that the provost’s statement was evidence that the administration is concerned that its plans are not being accepted.
“Fredeen’s letter is a blatant attempt to intimidate and control the academic freedom of our vaunted faculty and students,” said Helvering. “The raiding of Westminster Choir College is on all of our minds all the time, and I can understand a portion of a class or rehearsal being used to discuss as a community of treasured colleagues.”
Helvering called Fredeen’s comments “inappropriate” and urged her to publicly apologize to all faculty and students.
Fredeen said in a statement to The Rider News that her message was a “reminder” to faculty that “we have an obligation to deliver to our students the curriculum we promised we would deliver as described in the Academic Catalog.”
Fredeen said that she “did not warn of any disciplinary action with this message.”
The AAUP has been outspoken in its resistance to the administration in regards to WCC, criticizing the initial decision to sell the school and now persistently questioning the consolidation plan.
Fredeen cited the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure and contended that instructors should not introduce “controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”
However, in 1970, a footnote was added to the section that Fredeen referenced that clarified that the statement was not added to discourage what is controversial. In fact, according to the statement, “controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster.”
Feldman said that faculty at a university has a responsibility to help students think critically and subject decisions to criticism.
“It seems to me that this issue, like many others, could easily be relevant to any number of classes,” said Feldman. “I reject the provost’s claim that there are no classes in which this issue could possibly be relevant.”
The warning from Fredeen came just over a week after WCC students and supporters demonstrated in Lawrenceville to oppose the decision to move them to the campus in September 2020.
The provost described the actions of instructors as using students “to advance individual agendas,” and suggested such conduct was unethical.
Senior music education major Max Brey said that he felt Fredeen was incorrect in saying students were being used to further certain private plans and that the university should be more forthcoming with information.
“The university has not provided enough information or in a timely enough manner to counter the narratives that circulate through the Westminster community,” said Brey. “They need to be proactive in sharing information with us that they believe would clear up our ‘misconceptions.’”