UW-La Crosse

UW-L staff and students battle for free speech

Faculty senate drafting new academic freedom policy

UW-L staff and students battle for free speech

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - A University of Wisconsin-La Crosse professor is drawing national attention to the issue of free speech.

In October geography and earth science professor Rachel Slocum sent an email to her students that said they wouldn't be able to finish their homework because of the government shutdown. Her email specifically blamed the Republican Party for the situation. A student in the class snapped a picture of the email and posted it on Twitter. It quickly gained national attention and the university asked Slocum to apologize to her students.

Following her apology, staff and students at UW-L are worried that they're not able to express themselves freely. Now the university's faculty senate is taking action.

Academic Freedom is a set of three principles put in place by the American Association of University Professors in 1940. One of those principles says that teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom, but shouldn't introduce controversial topics not related to their subject. The UW-L faculty feels there needs to be a more clear definition to academic freedom in our digital world.

The faculty union and senate at the UWL want to make sure that staff and students are able to openly express their opinions and beliefs.

"The nature of a university education is to experience challenges to your own views. If every time somebody feels challenged in the classroom there is an outcry, then we're not going to get very far in terms of an education," Susan Crutchfield, chair of the English Department at UW-L, said.

Crutchfield said social media has changed the game.

"When what is being contextualized in an educational setting is sent out into the public without that context people can misunderstand," Crutchfield said.

She feels there needs to be a change to the policy.

"A statement that will spell out a little more clearly what we want to preserve in terms of the kinds of interactions and the kinds of ideas that can be expressed in the classroom, and also in other professional contexts at UW-L like over email, on the Internet," she said.

But UW-L Chancellor Joe Gow doesn't think a new policy is necessary.

"I don't know that we need to do much more than just say lets be sensitive to what the American Association of University Professors has already said, which is to use academic freedom but also have skill when you're discussing a controversial topic," Gow said.

He said what prompted the conversation of a new academic freedom policy was an isolated incident and hopes the new policy will address more than just one issue.

"Each case, you're going to find, is a little bit different and you have to look at what is happening in a particular case," Gow said.

He said the university will implement the policy as long as all four campus governing boards agree on it. Those boards include faculty, staff and students.

A draft of the new policy will be shared with the entire university once it's finished. Employees and students will get the chance to discuss the policy before the faculty senate votes on it at the end of the year.

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