Campus Free Speech

Auburn and Extramural Speech: An Update


I recently noted that Auburn University was not responding well to a controversy that had erupted over the social media activities of one of its newly hired instructors. Although the instructor's tweets were clearly protected as private political speech under the Constitution and protected as extramural speech under the American Association of University Professors guidelines, Auburn had denounced them as "hateful" and threatened to explore its options for taking action against the instructor. Auburn was in a difficult political spot since the controversy had been amplified by Donald Trump Jr. and local politicians had jumped on the bandwagon calling for the termination of the instructor, but its duty as a university committed for free speech was clear.

Auburn's president has now informed the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that, "I am pleased to respond in order to confirm Auburn's commitment to the Constitution." Always a relief to hear that a university "will not violate the law or Auburn policy." Good to know. Of course, the president did not explain why it took days for Auburn to publicly acknowledge that or why the university had initially suggested that it would be taking such an action.

Less publicly, Auburn has apparently also taken steps to insure that its new adjunct instructor of English will in fact not do any teaching. The position is being converted into a "research-only fellowship." Academics would often view such a change of position to be a net plus since it would provide more time and resources to produce the kind of scholarship that is often rewarded on the academic job market. That might not be the case here, however, since Jesse Goldberg might have benefited more from the teaching experience and evaluations. It is clear enough that Auburn is trying to minimize its exposure to Goldberg without running afoul of the law, and presumably this will make it even less likely that Auburn will extend the term of Goldberg's appointment when the initial position runs out. For tenure-track faculty, these kinds of sudden relief from teaching duties have sometimes been an opportunity to let the storm blow over but sometimes have been the prelude to permanently sidelining the offending faculty member. Goldberg might be willing to accept this offer, but given his circumstances it was an offer he could not have easily refused.

Auburn may have found a solution to its immediate problem, but it has shown little willingness to stand up for its own academic mission and for the rights of its faculty when the mob starts howling.