As Americans, there are few rights that we hold dear more than our right to free speech; the right to say what we want, where we want, when we want. Granted, this freedom can be taken too far, but for the most part, our right to express our feelings and views without fear of backlash is what sets our society apart from many others in the world, and in no place is this right more sacred and valuable than in the classroom.
As students and professors, we have the right to examine, analyze and question any topic or theory as long as we are able to provide evidence to reinforce our claims. However, there are some who believe that professors should shy away from expressing their personal views and opinions in the classroom. Of course there are laws that protect faculty at most universities, including Rider. Members of the faculty who are tenured cannot be terminated for covering material that is contrary to beliefs held by students. However, the protection that these clauses give is not as far-reaching as you might think.
Dr. Jeffrey Halpern, associate professor of sociology, as well as chief negotiatiing officer for the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), believes that the biggest threat to academic freedom in the classroom stems from the lack of job security held by “contingent” faculty (adjuncts).
“The single greatest obstacle across the whole country is the fact that there are so many people teaching on these contingent contracts, so even when they are teaching in a good climate, they don’t know who they will offend,” said Halpern. “And it’s not only the students; they may offend a colleague, they may offend the dean, so it’s always in the back of your mind.”
The college in which a contingent faculty member is employed can choose not to renew his or her contract if an issue arises in which a student or member of the community takes offense at the views or material. No reason has to be given, as it is not technically a terminated contract of a tenured professor. A university simply needs to state that it decided not to offer the course.
This dilemma leads to a large number of adjuncts choosing not to cover topics that may cause offense, leading to what Halpern refers to as the “self-censorship of the classroom.” With the threat of losing vital income, an adjunct is more likely to avoid controversial topics altogether than to roll the dice and hope that a student or peer does not have an issue with his or her view. This practice causes students to miss out on material that may broaden their own perspectives on a topic, making the overall goal of college and academic pursuit null and void.
As students, it is our duty to actively share free thinking in the classroom. The diverse views and backgrounds of students and professors around the globe are what make college the learning experience it is. Let’s promote free speech in the classroom, not silence it.
Sophomore journalism major
Printed in the 02/25/15 issue.