When Professors Express Intimidating Opinions


We’ve seen the following: the questioning of a professor’s ability to teach well because of the effect on his or her students of the professor’s expression of a controversial opinion. This was one element of the debate surrounding Steven Salaita’s tweets. For example, he wrote on Twitter, “If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.” Concerns were raised about whether pro-Israel students would be treated fairly by Salaita, and whether they would feel adequately respected in the classroom.

These kinds of concerns have been raised about professors expressing a wide range of opinions, including opposition to immigration, criticisms of religion in general or specific religions, objections to certain sexual practices, claims of cultural superiority, and so on.

We can call these “intimidating opinions,” because when professors express them, some students may feel intimidated. It’s a phenomenon worth talking about.

When we consider the expression of intimidating opinions here, let’s imagine them as expressed in a way that is traditionally protected by academic freedom, either as an extramural utterance (a letter to the editor, or a Tweet, etc.), or as part of a lesson in class on the relevant topic. Further, let’s imagine the opinion is expressed in an at least minimally professional manner (whatever you take that to involve; unprofessional would be, for example, the professor screaming the opinion at a student). Additionally, let’s assume that we do not want our students to feel intimidated.

Suppose that students hear that their professor believes, for example, that their religious beliefs are foolish, or that people from their country of origin have an inferior culture. They might worry about whether their professor is capable of treating them fairly, or with respect.

Some of the worries might be based on the students’ lack of experience. While faculty—especially philosophy faculty—know that “believes that P” does not imply “teaches that P”, nor “teaches in a way to encourage students to come to believe P,” nor “is unfair or disrespectful to people who believe P is not the case,” some students may not.

To address these worries, professors could explicitly tell students that they are assessed on their performance in the class, not on their political views or identity, and that in evaluating their performance what matters is the quality of their arguments and evidence (relative to the level of instruction), not that their conclusions are ones the professor endorses. Some professors already make such statements, of course. Even better would be to show students the idea, by inviting students to criticize their views, and rewarding them with praise and good grades for doing so.

Some worries might be based on plenty of experience. For example, they might have had past experiences of being treated badly because of their views despite reassurances of neutrality. And further, sometimes a professor’s intimidating opinions are not about ideas the student believes or is arguing for, but rather about their identity. Being assured that your paper will be graded on the quality of its argument rather than whether the professor agrees with its politics would seem to do little to allay students’ concerns of bias when they learn their teacher considers them to be from an inferior culture.

What, if anything, can we do about this?

Here are some non-starters, in my view: (A) asking professors to keep their potentially intimidating opinions to themselves, (B) disciplining or terminating faculty for expressing intimidating opinions, (C) telling the students to just suck it up.

We should reject (A) because one of the important aspects of academic life, for both faculty and students, is learning through disagreement. We should want academia to continue to include people who have controversial (but not obviously false) views. We should reject (B) because it slams up against academic freedom and all of the reasons for it. And we should reject (C) for it is just a way of not taking the problem seriously.

So, how do we preserve constructive and robust disagreement in academia, respect academic freedom, and take our students’ concerns about being treated fairly seriously?

While (A) is off the table, it is perfectly within the bounds of the acceptable for faculty to advise their colleagues about how to express their views, given that we care about student perceptions of fairness and respect. In my experience, with sufficient preparation, thoughtfulness, empathy, and attention, a professor can discuss any controversial academic subject or public issue with their students. And while the public reaction to an op-ed or a blog post is harder to influence, it is not impossible to shape the expression of controversial opinions in ways that diminish their potential for student intimidation.

It is likely not good enough for the author to think to him or herself, “I’ve done a good job of being respectful, etc., posting it now.” We know enough to know that we don’t know how others sufficiently different from us will hear us. It’s advisable for a faculty member with a potentially intimidating opinion to express to consult with colleagues (possibly students, too) to do this well, and to be open to criticism. Note that this requires colleagues willing to do this work, and a (preferably local) professional culture that welcomes this kind of consultation.

Developing this culture where it’s absent, or maintaining it where it’s present, may require a sharper distinction between the professional and the social than many academics are comfortable with. I completely understand not wanting to be friends with or even hang out with a colleague who has what you think are highly objectionable views. I’m not asking that you do that. But we should understand our professional life as involving responsibilities to exactly those colleagues with whom we strenuously disagree to help them express their views in ways consistent with our picture of a good university.

Turning now to (B), it, as stated, and for the kinds of cases we’ve been imagining—where professionalism is at least minimally maintained—is unacceptable. But generally we need to be careful about the deployment of the academic freedom defense so it is not used as a cover for unprofessional behavior. For example, we should not be fooled by attempts to use academic freedom as a defense for intentionally undermining our students’ academic performance or professional prospects. This is not to say that there are bright lines here, or an absence of hard cases. While we have good reasons to have a presumption to side with academic freedom complaints, presumptions can be overridden.

Similarly, while we should reject (C), if we acknowledge that inexperience and ignorance contribute to some students’ false beliefs about the fairness of their professors, or to them having attitudes that end up negatively affecting their academic performance, then there seems to be room for education to improve things. To be clear, this is not to put on students most of the responsibility for coping with, say, a professor who has expressed views plausibly interpreted as racist. Nor is it to object to students being vocal in and out of the classroom about their professor’s views—we should want that freedom for our students, too.

Rather, the primary responsibility is on the university, and on faculty, for teaching our students the knowledge and skills by which to better participate in university culture. Most faculty already do this to some extent just by teaching their courses. But perhaps a more direct approach is warranted. For many reasons, I am uncertain about what that would look like, and of course it is only a part of solution.

Suggestions welcome. Criticism, too.

Stuart Davis, “Swing Landscape”

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