Free Speech

UCLA Academic Freedom Committee Statement Related to the Gordon Klein Controversy

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Just posted by the UCLA Academic Senate Committee on Academic Freedom, about the controversy discussed here on June 10:

Statement of the Academic Freedom Committee

June 30, 2020

In response to a recent controversy surrounding an e-mail reply to a student by Gordon Klein (a Lecturer in Accounting at the Anderson School), the UCLA Senate Committee on Academic Freedom underlines all instructors' freedom (protected by APM-010) to express their views on grading policy as they determine to be appropriate.

Some people may well disagree with Prof. Klein's views, and think that he should have responded differently to a student's request that the grading structure be changed to "exercise compassion and leniency with Black students in our major." But instructors are entitled and empowered to say "no" to such requests;[1] and, just as students have every right to express their views on such matters to faculty and to others, instructors are entitled to explain their views in turn to students. When any of us ask people to do things, especially based on a moral or political argument about current events, those people are entitled to respond with their own moral or political views.

The process of evaluating the situation is proceeding at the Anderson School, and our committee has no direct role in that process. Our concern instead is that any public announcement that an instructor is being placed on administrative leave for what appears to be a particular statement—whether the statement happened in class, in an e-mail responding to a student, on social media, or wherever else—creates a chilling effect for other instructors, especially untenured ones. It is the committee's role to try to prevent such chilling effects.

An academic institution like UCLA must remain a place for the expression of a wide diversity of views and interpretations. It should also be a site of vigorous debate—including by students, by faculty, and by others—so that those exposed to or participating in these discussions have the opportunity to hear a range of opinions as they formulate their own views.

[1] See, e.g., Academic Senate Memo on Spring 2020 Final Exams, which reaffirms that instructors have "the flexibility to change their method of final assessments" so long as the final grade "reflect[s] the student's achievement in the course" and is "based upon adequate evaluation of the achievement," but does not require instructors to make any particular changes.

Disclosure: I am one of the several members of the Committee.

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  1. But, what DOES this mean, for the affected instructor in this particular case? Or is this something that–as of today–you still have no knowledge?

    1. My hope is that those who are in charge of deciding about the personnel questions will pay attention to our position. My sense is that the statements of the Academic Freedom Committee do have some such influence.

    2. Think of it as an amicus brief in whatever trial Prof. Klein is being subjected to.

        1. The disciplinary process he’s being subjected to for his email.

  2. Stale-thinking, tone-deaf, boorish teachers have rights, too.

    1. Quite correct. All professors have rights, as opposed to the massive sense of entitlement that white-savior emailer felt on behalf of his brown fellow students.

    2. Absolutely right.

      The way this SHOULD have been handled: the dean should have sat down with the Professor and reminded him to maintain a professional tone in e-mails and not make gratuitous comments that reflect poorly on the university when responding to a request about grading and exam policies.

      And then the University should have made a public statement that they reminded the professor about his obligations to maintain professionalism in his interactions with students, that no further action would be taken, and that all requests by students to take any additional action have been received and are denied on the grounds that the requested actions would violate academic freedom.

  3. I’m thinking of this as a League of Nations statement about Poland, circa 1939.

  4. The Middle Finger and the Law might provide some light relief.

  5. Before saying that this behavior was “academic freedom” we should ask some simple questions.

    Do we think it would be acceptable for professors to act like this (rude) on a routine basis?

    Do professors not have to perform administrative tasks with decency and respect? If not, should they even be performing these tasks at all?

    Is politeness and good customer service really contrary to academic freedom?

    Do professors really have a right to behave in a manner that we would not accept in others, even though EVERYONE has First Amendment rights, and the most important political debates take place outside of the academy.

    I do not think that too much ought to be made of this behavior. All human beings make mistakes. This was rather a minor one, in the bigger scheme of things. But, a mistake is still not a virtue.

    I applaud the outcome for the individual, since the backlash was overkill, while I am doubtful of the larger principle.

    But it is not that a mistake was not made, only that the response was disproportionate. The behavior here is NOT a model to emulate.

    1. If rudeness were a common cause of being fired, no one would have jobs.

      Do you think it is good behavior to ask that only black students get a bye?

      College is supposed to be for learning, and one of those things is personal responsibility, and not expecting to be freed from responsibility for trivial reasons.Maybe you should read Letter from a Birmingham Jail, where MLK makes it explicit that civil disobedience carries with it consequences; that if you are not willing to chance the consequences, then your civil disobedience has no costs and is worthless.

      If the kid thought these protests were more important than taking a final, he should have said so, and might have gotten some respect. Wanting to protest at no cost results in no respect.

    2. Who is the arbiter of what is rude, or too rude? Given the ever changing definitions of words to fit certain narratives, like what constitutes things like “violence”, how is it that something so arbitrary as rudeness should even be a consideration?

      1. Colleges, like other places of employment, are hierarchical. The deans surely have the power to advise professors if the tone of their communications with students is unprofessional.

        1. No they don’t.

    3. You view the professor’s response as self-evidently rude. I saw no such evidence when I read the email. It is blunt and called the student out for sloppy thinking but it did so in a way that I considered entirely appropriate for college-age thinkers. Politeness does not mean obfuscating your meaning in euphemisms and innuendo. Politeness does not mean sugar-coating or hiding from the truth. Politeness means treating others the way that you would want them to treat you. True politeness is a measure of respect. And the highest form of respect is being honest with someone.

      The rest of your diatribe stems from your initial premise. If the email had been particularly rude, I would generally agree. But it wasn’t.

    4. DW – agreed that maybe academic freedom isn’t the best framework to analyze what happened. Obviously when dealing with students on a class-related issue there are limits that wouldn’t apply to the professor’s academic or personal writing. In some disciplines things have reached the point where instructors are required to use particular slide sets and teaching techniques on a day-by-day schedule, with a department written syllabus and accommodation policy, effectively completing eliminating the concept of academic freedom with respect to class content and management. Education administrators, particularly those with EdDs, would like to replace the concept of “professor” with something more like “curriculum delivery technician”. They use that phrase “curriculum delivery” a lot.

      But on this particular case: I’d say it’s marginal whether that response was rude at all. At most there was a tactical error in not realizing he was dealing with a hot button issue. On other issues -e.g. a poorly thought out design in an engineering class – we routinely get way harsher than that in order to get the point across.

      And finally, I think the “customer service” concept can only be carried so far at a school or university, at least when there is responsibility to evaluate and screen as well as teach.

      1. I think one mistake universities make is pretending collaborative learning is the same thing as the students getting to run the school.

        Obviously, all sorts of learning models can work, including pedagogical models where students have a lot of input on how the courses are taught.

        But that’s not the same thing as saying the students get to dictate personnel decisions. They don’t- and you know what, if the students don’t like that, nobody forced them to go to college or to go to UCLA. College administrations need to remember that at the end of the day, they are in charge, and students have very little bargaining power. They WANT that credential.

    5. If Professor Charles W. Kingsfield were alive today he’d be rolling over in his grave at Welker’s views on “rudeness”.

    6. Before saying that this behavior was “academic freedom” we should ask some simple questions.

      I think it is totally legitimate to have some sort of conversation about what this professor did and to ask critical questions about it.

      But no, we should say absolutely that this behavior, while boorish and unprofessional, was fully protected by academic freedom.

      In other words, the students should be told “we’re not going to discipline him, you aren’t going to force us to discipline him, you are welcome to drop out of UCLA if you can’t abide by the fact that we aren’t going to discipline him, but if you want to have a conversation as mature adults about his actual conduct and the mistakes he actually made, knowing that we aren’t going to discipline him, we will of course provide a legitimate opportunity for your criticisms to be heard”.

  6. Prof. Volokh,

    As an interested layman (having taken 10 courses at the Anderson School, though my MBA was conferred by UCI – 1979), it seems to me that there are two possible and amazing potential “crimes” here.

    1. He’s being threatened with punishment by the Anderson School, for not disobeying his Anderson supervisors, who told him to take no unusual accommodations. It would seem the School is attempting to avert attention from its own “Racist” memo (as measured by this week’s evolving standards). Further, his conduct appears in line with the Code of Conduct, as published.

    2. He’s being threatened with punishment by the Anderson School, for responding in a “rude” fashion?

    Your Senate group seems to be focused on the right to be rude (e.g. point 2). Surely, the Senate ought to feel strongly that instructors gain some qualified immunity from punishment when they follow written instructions (point 1.) from their Departments IAW various University Codes of Conduct. Anything less would seem to create a situation where any act or omission by an instructor could ex-post facto become a crime.

    Lastly,

    I suspect that the Dean dug himself a hole and the school now can’t escape. It may have hoped that this elderly instructor would decide not to teach in the Fall and they could paper this over with a statement deploring yada yada. But he didn’t Now what?

    1. Exactly — and instead of what he wrote, he should have just forwarded the dean’s memo.

      1. No. College instructors are not just employees of the dean. They are more important than the deans, and ought to consider themselves such. Deans are faculty who weren’t very good at research, or who slowed down in middle age and wanted to make themselves useful. It is not like a business, except in the sense that sometimes tech company engineers move into management because they’re losing their edge.

  7. I appreciate all of your comments, although I believe one major point has not been addressed. Unfortunately, this whole affair looks like a set up to entrap and punish those faculty who disagree with UCLA’s Black student requests. The students first drafted templates for Black and non-Black students to send requests to faculty asking for Final Accommodations for Black Students. (see below) The designated student (a non-Black in Klein’s case) would then deliver the response via email to the organizers, who would keep records advising their members what action to take. Klein’s response (#39) is flagged to email Anderson’s dean requesting his resignation along with a petition to fire Klein.

    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1IX42mJZdzoi8q7iiiAWMqVpBi_3dCwn9X2xoKfnR6CI/edit#gid=1221560764

    1. Thank you for confirming what I initially suspected – this was a coordinated campaign to get out of finals.

  8. Pardon the naive question, but is it legal to give extension on exams to some racial groups but not others?

    If it’s not legal, then you’d think that would be a factor in giving an instructor some slack if students ask him to do something illegal.

    Or do we say, “good on you for not breaking the law, but because you were so mean when you said you wouldn’t break the law, we’ll discipline you.”

    1. As I understand the request, as phrased, it would have violated the Fourteenth Amendment for the school to grant it. (And by the way, that would have been a better response than what the Professor actually said.)

      Of course, he could have also decided, in his discretion, to give everyone a break, which wouldn’t have violated the Constitution.

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