The academic freedom hearings held at Millersville University in Pennsylvania began when university President Francine G. McNairy explained the policies in place to protect academic freedom at MU.
The state’s House Select Committee on Academic Freedom convened on the campus of MU on March 22-23 to investigate the state of higher education in the commonwealth after meeting at Temple in January and at the University of Pittsburgh several months ago.
McNairy said that “the Millersville University community pledges itself to academic freedom and encourages imagination and curiosity, unfettered discourse, the exchange of divergent and controversial opinion, multicultural awareness and understanding, within an environment of civility, mutual respect and cooperation.”
She then referred to the collective bargaining agreement of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PSSHE) which specifically says faculty members should be “careful not to introduce into his/her teaching controversial matter which has no relation to his/her subject.” It also says professors should use restraint and be respectful of others opinions.
McNairy also explained that the Student Handbook includes a statement on students’ rights to express their views on all issues and that MU has an academic appeals policy.
“Over the past five years, seven complaints were purported to relate to academic freedom at Millersville University. After examining these concerns, we determined that two dealt with student teaching placement, three dealt with grade issues and were ultimately resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, and two were lodged anonymously, but still investigated and addressed…In all cases, student complaints are taken seriously and investigated,” said McNairy.
Students can start the process by appealing to the faculty member first, or they can go to the Office of Social Equity and Diversity as these seven complainants did, McNairy explained. She stated that the low number of complaints is proof of the success Millersville has had in protecting academic freedom.
Lastly, McNairy said that it is also important to remember that the purpose of education is to prepare students for the world and that includes challenging their views.
Committee Chairman Rep. Thomas L. Stevenson (R-Allegheny) responded to McNairy’s testimony saying, “I was impressed with Millersville’s policies and how you communicate them with your students.”
Rep. Patrick E. Fleagle (R-Franklin) then asked a series of questions and expressed his concern that anonymous grievances are allowed and urged McNairy to use “extreme caution.”
Rep. Gibson C. Armstrong (R-Lancaster) asked McNairy a number of questions including whether or not course critiques include questions about diversity of thought or ability to present different views. She replied that they do not, but there is a comment section.
McNairy also asked the committee to provide more information to the public, expressing that Millersville University did not have much information about how the hearings would be held beforehand. She asked that the committee explain the process and who can attend or speak at them ahead of time, presumably to lessen the confusion and misinformation that spreads without it.
A group of four Millersville students said they also did not have correct information on the hearings until the night before and had no idea what to expect.
“We thought we’d find students pointing fingers [of blame at professors] and they would have to defend themselves,” said MU junior Danielle Murphy; “the hearings were misconstrued.”
The others, junior Alicia Henry, senior Kristen Kepics, and sophomore Claire Leidig, said they came to the hearings to get informed. As government students who are semi-involved with campus politics they were interested in seeing the hearings.
Murphy said she actually got the details of when and where the hearings were being held because of her involvement with Students for Academic Freedom, not through Millersville University.
The four young women said that for the most part Millersville professors do a good job and allow for diverging opinions, and said they’ve never been penalized in their grading.
However, Murphy who is also the president of MU’s College Republican chapter said she has been ostracized by professors in class who know she holds strong conservative views. Professors will call on her or express her opinion for her to the class even when it is not relevant to the subject matter, said Murphy.
Julia A. Seymour is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.