Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Fighting for Academic Freedom

The Chronicle recently reported on the limits of academic freedom for public university professors. Kevin J. Renken, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin, found this out the hard way. He believed that administrators at the university were mishandling a National Science Foundation grant awarded to him and many of his colleagues. Upon bringing this to light, the university reduced his pay and returned the grant. Outraged at the university’s actions, he sued them alleging illegal retaliation.

Believing that his complaints fell under free speech, he was floored when the three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit Court ruled that he was not speaking in a capacity that protected him from such retaliatory action. The court ruled that "In order for a public employee to raise a successful First Amendment claim, he must have spoken in his capacity as a private citizen and not as an employee."

In response to this news, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has established a panel of First Amendment scholars to find new avenues to protect academic freedoms at public institutions. The AAUP has also issued a 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freddom and Tenure to which the AAA, and over 200 other scholarly and education organizations, has endorsed. However, some people agree with the court’s ruling. Ada Meloy of the American Council on Education says “the cases, to date, have not created any apparent injustices. ... Public-college employees do enjoy First Amendment rights, but that should not turn every case of employee discipline or discharge into a retaliation lawsuit."

Academic freedoms are enjoyed by academics nationwide, but threats arise every year that endanger these freedoms. Was the University of Wisconsin right to take such action against Professor Renken? Did the courts have the right idea with their ruling on the case? What precautions have you taken to avoid such situations when critiquing university policies or actions?

~Author: Leo Napper, AAA intern

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