Professors association: Defend academic freedom

Michael Mann has been assailed by critics and subjected to three probes. A bounty has been offered to anyone who can link him to fraud.

In November, a conservative group published a “professor watch list” with faculty it said “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” In December, a lawmaker bashed the University of Wisconsin at Madison over a  class on The Problem of Whiteness. Last month, an Arizona lawmaker put forth a bill that would ban college classes and activities that advocate social justice or solidarity based on ethnicity, race, gender, or other groupings.

These are among the cases that Hans-Joerg Tiede of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) mentioned as evidence of a growing threat to academic freedom made worse by the Trump administration.

“It’s an attempt to attack the role that these institutions play in our democracy,” he said.

The group this week issued a statement — in part crafted by Pennsylvania State University scientist Michael Mann, who has come under attack for his research on climate change — that urges universities, their governing boards, and their faculties to defend academic freedom “and to condemn targeted harassment and intimidation of faculty members.”

The statement also recommends that universities and faculties establish regulations that prohibit the secret taping of classroom discussions or private meetings between students and professors.

“We cannot tolerate bad-faith smear campaigns and attacks on academics whose findings or views might seem threatening to powerful interest groups,” Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center, said in an email. “We must defend academics against that, and that's really what this is about.”

Mann’s research on climate change came under scrutiny after hackers intercepted emails that they believed pointed to researchers’ hiding information that questioned the link between climate change and human activity.  Mann was cleared of any wrongdoing by Penn State, the National Science Foundation, and others.

In an opinion piece for the Washington Post that ran in December, Mann recounted how at the height of the scrutiny in August 2010, he received a letter with suspicious white powder at his office.

“I dropped the letter, held my breath, and slipped out the door as swiftly as I could, shutting it behind me,” he wrote. “First I went to the bathroom to scrub my hands. Then I called the police.”

The substance turned out to be corn starch. Mann described the incident as one of a series of threats he has received since the 1990s. He said he worries what lies ahead under the Trump administration.

“We know we could be hauled into Congress to face hostile questioning from climate-change deniers,” he wrote. “We know we could be publicly vilified by politicians. We know we could be at the receiving end of federal subpoenas demanding our personal emails. We know we could see our research grants audited or revoked.”

In its statement, the professors association said that since the election there has been a “resurgence of politically motivated witch hunts against academic scientists working in fields such as climate change and fetal tissue research.”

Drexel University professor George Ciccariello-Maher, who got death threats after a Christmas Eve tweet about white genocide, which he said was meant as a satirical jab at the far right, was pleased to hear about the association’s statement.

“It’s heartening to see the AAUP taking a strong stance against the kind of targeted bullying that I was subjected to and which has become so common today,” he said in an email from Mexico, where he is on sabbatical. “By urging universities to strongly condemn such intimidation tactics and to prohibit surreptitious recording of classroom conversations, these new guidelines help to protect students and faculty alike by ensuring that the classroom is and remains a space for frank debate rather than suspicious self-censorship.”

Arthur Hochner, president of the faculty union at Temple University, also was encouraged to hear of the statement, though he wasn’t aware of Temple professors experiencing online harassment.

Tiede, who works in the AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure and governance, said that even if a university disagrees with a professor’s words and distances itself from the remarks, the school should make clear that the professor has the right to make the statement and condemn any harassment that the professor gets. (The AAUP does state that a professor could be sanctioned if a committee of peers determines his or her statements or work show a lack of professional fitness.)

“To condemn instances of harassment, I think, is really important,” he said.