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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GradGirl
GradGirl
4 years ago

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

By that reasoning, we can call them “awesome opinions,” because when professors express them, some students feel awesome. Something is off here.Report

Peter Alward
Peter Alward
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

Here’s what I think Gradgirlmis getting at: :

Defining intimidating opinions as opinions some people are intimidated by is akin’ to defining offensive behaviour as behaviour that offends some people. But just as something can offend without being offensive in a substantive/ normative sense, an opinion can intimidate w/o being intimidating in a similar sense.

Perhaps controversial, but still a serious point.Report

Docfemeritus
Docfemeritus
4 years ago

I have to separate a number of contexts here. First, if the professor is expressing an opinion, intimidating or not, in class and it is relevant to the class, then A-OK. If it has nothing to do with the class, then academic freedom does not protect it – as a former AAUP president where I taught I spent much time looking at the academic freedom issue and am sure it covers, in class, only what is class related. If it is class related but intimidates students, then one must ask what is the motivation on the faculty member’s part? I would decry an professor who was intimidating students for nefarious purposes. On the other hand, what and why would a professor intimidate students for no reason? Being offensive is different from being intimidating and these are often confused for each other.

I agree with much of analysis in the article. Asking professors to/ not being provocative and offend students is a standard that cannot be reasonable since it requires a professor to know each and every student’s point of view and what offends them. Unrealistic. Is it the prof’s job to anticipate what 25-100+ students will be offended by or object to? Or is it that students should adapt to professors and their styles? Assuming, of course, those styles are not out of bounds.

Of course, going beyond reasonable boundaries is never to be sanctioned. But a professor expressing personal views outside the class and in public fora, is not outside the bounds, unless legalities restrict that expression. Such would be calls to violence, inciting anti-ethnic actions, and the such. Otherwise, free speech is free speech.Report

harry b
Reply to  Docfemeritus
4 years ago

“First, if the professor is expressing an opinion, intimidating or not, in class and it is relevant to the class, then A-OK.”

Really? If I am teaching a class about the morality of abortion, and express the opinion that abortion is morally wrong, that’s A-OK? It might be fine, pedagogically, in some circumstances, but that is something that needs to be justified.

What about a class about the politics of abortion in which one expresses the hope and expectation that if Trump threatens Roe vs Wade, that every student in the class will campaign to defend it? (real example, my campus). This seems like a straightforward abuse of one’s position of trust.Report

Merely Possible Philosopher
Merely Possible Philosopher
4 years ago

Hm. I guess I better stop using my favorite Avicenna quote when teaching the law of non-contradiction:
“Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  Merely Possible Philosopher
4 years ago

I have published “intimidating” opinions, but I don’t assign them as reading, and few of my students have read them. In class, I tend to keep my “intimidating” opinions to myself. I’ll raise them as theoretical positions for the purposes of discussion, but unless the students demand to know what I think personally, I don’t tell them. I don’t want to scare them, and prefer not to give my opinions to them in general so that they don’t feel pressure to agree with me.Report

Joshua Reagan
Joshua Reagan
Reply to  Merely Possible Philosopher
4 years ago

Avicenna’s solution is only good enough to secure agreement on two instances of the law of non-contradiction. Stronger methods of coercion are needed to compel acceptance of the general law!!Report

PeteJ
PeteJ
4 years ago

“If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.”

If I were Dean of the Faculty I’d simply fire anyone who tweeted such a thing. It is unprofessional, unphilosophical, indicates profound incompetence and damages relationships. I can see no possible excuse for it. The same would be true if he’d said ‘attacking’.

Surely unprovable sweeping generalisations like this are what philosophy is supposed to prevent. This reads like a Trump tweet. It is divisive, dogmatic, unprovable and obviously nonsense, Teenage stuff.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
Reply to  PeteJ
4 years ago

I don’t like the tweet any more that you do, but doesn’t everyone have a right to their political opinions, “teenage stuff” or otherwise? Who should be allowed to decide which political opinions are acceptable and which are “obviously nonsense”?Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

It’s not about having acceptable opinions. It’s about denigrating people who disagree with ones opinions and classifying them as awful people. I happen to agree that Israel’s behaviour is indefensible but it is something else to dismiss everyone who defends it as awful human beings. I would rather say that the tweet reveals its author to be a trouble-maker and propogandist and exactly the sort of thinking that philosophy is there to prevent. This tweet looks more like Dawkins at work than an intelligent philosopher.Report

Merely Possible Philosopher
Merely Possible Philosopher
Reply to  PeterJ
4 years ago

PeterJ: so is it your position that Dawkins should be denied any form of employment as well? I happen to agree with you that those are silly and offensive things to say. But to bring out an old trope, free speech isn’t there to protect intelligent and uncontroversial remarks. It’s there to protect precisely the (seemingly) silly and offensive remarks. Where the protections of free speech should end is a difficult question, but I’d be hesitant to draw the line anywhere short of incitement to violence.

I guess my issue is that it’s not clear to me how your view differs from the cartoonish view (that I wouldn’t presume to ascribe to you) that merely offensive speech should be outlawed. I assume that isn’t your view, but could you explain where you think the line should be drawn?Report

Clement Loo
Clement Loo
Reply to  Merely Possible Philosopher
4 years ago

I’m going to use Merely Possible’s comment as an opportunity to chime in.

I think it’s worth taking a moment to reflect more generally about what should be understood as protected/privileged speech. I often seen folks uncritically suggest that all speech that doesn’t directly cause harm or advocate for violence is protected but I’m not convinced that such a broad understanding of free speech is the only interpretation that is plausible.

While I’m not a Constitutional scholar by any means and I might simply be wrong, I’m of the understanding that 1st Amendment and similar protections were and are intended to protect political dissent and public discourse. It seems to me that silly and offensive remarks often don’t contribute to public discourse nor are an expression of political dissent. As such, in those instances when offensive and silly speech doesn’t contribute to promoting public discourse or commenting on governance I’m not clear that it would be an indefensible view to hold that they aren’t covered by free speech protections.Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
Reply to  Merely Possible Philosopher
4 years ago

Merely Possible Philosopher – You ask whether Dawkins should be denied any form of employment as well. I think it might be best not to answer but I’ll say yes. We’re not talking about the right to express an opinion. The issue is whether it is acceptable for professionals to use unnecessary ad hominem arguments and sink to the level of insults.

—“I guess my issue is that it’s not clear to me how your view differs from the cartoonish view (that I wouldn’t presume to ascribe to you) that merely offensive speech should be outlawed. I assume that isn’t your view, but could you explain where you think the line should be drawn?”

I’d draw the line at calling all of ones opponents awful people. This is thoughtless pub-talk in my view and highly unprofessional. .Report

Ghost
Ghost
4 years ago

I guess I think that regularly expressing intimidating opinions are inappropriate in the classroom. That said, many philosophers, myself included, who keep their intimidating opinions hushed in the classroom, take few precautions, if any, to do the same on-line.

Maybe we should stop doing that.

Then again, so long as we’re not using hyperbole like Salaita, and saying that people are “horrible”, and instead, debating fairly, and charitably, it’s incumbent on the student to reflect on the divergence in opinion. Hopefully they will come to a better version of their own view- one free of bigotry, which they can square with their more stable moral intuitions.

That’s what I think.Report

Jared Michaelson
Jared Michaelson
4 years ago

I think there’s a test for what kind of professorial speech should be off the table (though of course still legal and unworthy of firing): does it express hostility or disrespect to certain people merely because of the community to which they belong, and may have been born? For example, “I don’t distinguish between the government of [murderous country] X and the people of X.” Such a statement suggests that anyone from country X, assuming the same speaker hates X, are likely to be regarded awfully buy this prof.

On the other hand, if a prof says, “anyone who’s pro-choice is complicit in murder,” he is maligning them because of something they do or so or think, not their communal identity. So that’s not off the table (ridiculous and offensive as it is).

And — I shouldn’t need to clarify this, but based on the thread so far I do: saying it’s off the table, or inappropriate, does not imply that a prof who speaks that way should be fired. It also doesn’t imply that thinking some your students — based on their community, religion or nationality — are awful, evil, or what have you, entails that you’ll act accordingly. Even if you won’t, such students would still be ill-advised to take you.Report

CA Grad Student
CA Grad Student
4 years ago

As I suggested in another thread, I’m not a fan of protecting a wide swath of intimidating opinions, and I’m unconvinced that there aren’t good ranges of intimidating opinions which should result in firing or other discipline. Perhaps I’m just not sufficiently committed to academic freedom, but were I dean, I’d do my hardest to sanction a faculty member who tweeted:

“The best thing about teaching college is the regularly introduction of a new class of first-year women.

or

“It is the law that I have to teach non-white students. Some laws I enthusiastically comply with. Some.”

I don’t see how refusing to see such tweets as sanctionable advances intellectual exploration, and I don’t see how refusing to see such tweets as sanctionable is hospitable to good teaching, so I don’t see the grounds for protecting academic freedom. And I think we’re smart enough to make some distinctions between reasonable and unreasonable things to permit being said by a university employee–whose behavior extramural or not can interfere or advance the university’s mission.Report

harry b
4 years ago

Ghost captures the hard question. Which is not about sanctioning, or academic freedom, or whatever, but about professional ethics..
I teach at a public institution, and we offer an inclusive education to all comers; I teach a class that is basically compulsory for all business students (most could avoid me if they tried, some couldn’t). I’ve an obligation to got to some lengths to ensure that all students can learn from me if they have been admitted to the institution and want to learn what I teach.

Maybe Salaita is a really nice guy. But I have zionist students, and students who are not zionist but Jewish and aware of the places where anti-zionism and anti-semitism meet. I think that if I had the beliefs that Salaita appears to have about all zionists, I would have a professional obligation not to broadcast those views on a forum where there was a reasonable chance they’d get picked up by my students. If I had similar views about Trump supporters, or Bernie supporters or Hillary supporters, I would have the same obligation. If, like one of my colleagues apparently, I was feeling in celebratory mood because some maniac started murdering police officers in Texas, I similarly would have an obligation to keep that within my own circle. I don’t see how the kid of a police officer (I teach some) or someone aspiring to be one (I teach some, and am mentoring a couple right now) could see me as a potential source of rich education if they had reason to believe that not only that I harboured such attitudes but that I was sufficiently unaware of my obligations that I would broadcast them.

Maybe if I taught at a private school it’d be different. But we market ourselves as the only affordable elite option for middle class kids in our state.

My speech on blogs is accessible to students (I blog under my first name, and if you just came upon my blog, it would take a bit of work to figure out it’s me, but not much). I do express my views about things, but I am pretty careful not to express them in intemperate terms, and I have to say that there are some issues about which I remain silent. The world is no poorer for that. If Salaita, to take that example, wants to broadcast in a way that excludes a range of students, then he should think about other forms of employment.

Of course there are limits. If you are a Nazi, or in the KKK, or even sympathetic, you will have reason to think I am not very interested in educating you. I don’t know where the limit is exactly, and am open to the possibility that I stay unnecessarily far within the lineReport