Brandeis University Trying To Discipline Professor

for saying (in a Latin American politics class) that “Mexican migrants in the United States are sometimes referred to pejoratively as ‘wetbacks'”? That’s what the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports, though pointing out that Brandeis hasn’t even explicitly said exactly what speech of his was found to be “racial[ly] harass[ing].” FIRE (which I’ve found to be consistently factually credible) also points to Brandeis faculty committees that strongly condemn the procedures that the university has used, and argue — quite correctly, if the facts are as they are described — that this is a serious violation of academic freedom.

I should note that I’m not as hostile as the faculty committees are to the administration’s decision to place a monitor in the professor’s class. It seems to me that people who pay one’s salary to teach are entitled to know what one is teaching. And if the monitor was looking for, say, targeted personal insults of individual students (if that were the allegation), that would be a plausible thing for the monitor to do (though my view is that recording the class would be a less disruptive way of doing that). Likewise, if there were simply reports that the professor was teaching in a confusing and ineffective way, the administration should be entitled to look in on the classes and see whether they can offer the professor constructive advice, or perhaps evaluate the teaching to see if the professor falls below minimum tenure standards (or perhaps should be reassigned to teaching some other class in which he does better).

The trouble is that the administration seems to be using a vague and potentially extremely broad definition of what the professor is not supposed to be saying — it’s not just the monitoring, but monitoring coupled with (1) the threat of punishment for speech for which a professor ought not be punished, (2) a finding of racial harassment based on the earlier statements, and (3) seemingly serious procedural failings in the process the administration has used. Looks like very bad stuff, given the facts reported on the FIRE site and the documents to which it links.

UPDATE: Prof. Margaret Soltan (at George Washington University) blogged several weeks ago about the controversy (and also here); I haven’t read all the details, but I thought I’d forward the link. Thanks to reader Cactus Jack for the pointer.

FURTHER UPDATE: I have more about the facts, and the problems with Brandeis’ actions, here.

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