Academic Freedom Alliance Letter to the University of Rochester

Academic Freedom Alliance sent a letter to University of Rochester expressing concern about the University’s treatment of an English professor. Professor David Bleich has taught courses on sensitive topics in race, gender and sexuality for many years. These courses may include offensive language-rich readings. It is important to discuss the text details in class. The texts should also be read out loud and correctly quoted in order for the students to understand the meaning. Although these conversations may be challenging at times, they form the basis of college-level literature criticism and analysis.

Professor Bleich is currently teaching a course on Gender and Anger this semester. A short story had been given to him and he read it aloud. He read a portion of text that contained the n-word. There was vigorous discussion among students about this word’s use. A section from Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy was read by Professor Bleich to students in a follow-up class. Chronicle of Higher EducationArticle on how to use the n-word within classroom environments

His class was stopped by the university and several restrictions were put in place that required him to fulfill them before he can resume his teaching. It is not acceptable for college professors to speak the n word in class.

It is a very common issue at all universities. Some professors are not thoughtful enough about how they speak in class. These controversies can sometimes lead to an improvement in the way instructors teach. These controversies also have hampered professors’ ability to participate in classroom conversations. While it may not be appropriate for professors or students to use slurs against them, academically speaking professors must have the ability to talk about slurs and their usage. Universities must be able distinguish between the use and mention of words.

Bleich’s case is a good example of the risks. An unrelated dean has taken unilateral action regarding how English professors are to conduct literature classes. Similar sweeping directives as above could have implications in a variety of classes, where offensive language would need to discussed openly and clearly across disciplines.

University of Rochester has taken a course that is contrary to its contractual obligations to academic freedom. This is a huge disservice to its students as well as its professors.

This is our letter to Rochester University

As the AAUP elaborates on these implications, it repeatedly emphasizes that the classroom discussion at issue is well within the limits of the principles academic freedom to Rochester has contractually committed and which are widely accepted in the profession. In its 1994 report on freedom to expression, the AAUP concluded that ridiculing or harassing students in the classroom would violate professional ethics. However, such verbal attacks had to be distinguished clearly from hateful expressions, which must be accompanied by the appropriate words. Inflicting offensive speech in the classroom is a possibility. It would be a violation of classroom freedom to allow students to discuss the thoughts, words, and behavior that could be harassing them.

The entire article can be found here.

This was no surprise as Professor Kennedy did not find the idea of Kennedy reading aloud Kennedy’s writing inappropriate. According to him, the AFA was:

It is deeply disturbing that an instructor was disciplined and investigated for using a term in class that continues to hold a significant place in American culture. The demand to make this term – ‘nigger’ – literally unmentionable is a demand that ought not be honored. Obligatory silence and bowdlerization are antithetical the intellectual, artistic, and academic freedoms essential for higher education.

It is urgent that the University of Rochester reverses course and affirms its commitment as an institution of higher learning and a university that values the intellectual freedom of its faculty members.