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Free Speech

UW Administrator Says Prof Created "Toxic Environment" with His Land Non-Acknowledgment

The Director of the UW School of Computer Science & Engineering said Prof. Stuart Reges's statement is "not relevant to the content of the course he teaches"—but the school encourages professors to include its own preferred view, which is just as irrelevant to the course content.


The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reports:

If professors at the University of Washington want to include a statement of land acknowledgment on their syllabi, they must parrot the administration's viewpoint or shut up.

It has become increasingly common in academia to promote statements that formally recognize indigenous ties to the land occupied by a university, but the UW Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering encourages professors to include a land acknowledgement on their syllabi at the expense of their First Amendment rights.

Professor Stuart Reges learned this the hard way when a land acknowledgement on his syllabus was censored by administrators because it didn't match a university-approved statement. Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education called on UW to ensure that faculty, if they choose to address this topic in their syllabi, can use the university's statement or craft their own.

"UW pays lip service to inclusivity, but censorship is incompatible with inclusivity," said FIRE Program Officer Zach Greenberg, who wrote today's letter to UW. "UW needs to re-evaluate its list of 'best practices for inclusive courses' in light of its tolerance for viewpoint discrimination."

On the list, the Allen School includes an "Indigenous Land Acknowledgement" statement. The list notes that the provided statement is "an example," suggesting that the university intends it to be a starting point that can be adapted, not a rigid take-it-or-leave-it statement. The fact that the statement could be adapted seemed clear—until a professor wrote one that administrators didn't like.

On Dec. 8, Reges criticized land acknowledgment statements in an email to faculty and included a modified statement he put in his syllabus: "I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington." Reges's statement was a nod to Locke's philosophical theory that property rights are established by improving land.

"I decided to see whether it was acceptable to present an alternate viewpoint," said Reges. "Obviously their version of diversity does not include conservative viewpoints."

Almost a month later, on Jan. 4, Allen School Director and Professor Magdalena Balazinska ordered Reges to remove his modified statement from his syllabus immediately, labeling it as "inappropriate" and "offensive," creating "a toxic environment in [Reges'] course." Reges refused and criticized the department's inconsistency in allowing other professors to include modified statements that are less critical of the pre-approved version.

In response, Balazinska countered that she "will ask any instructor who uses a land acknowledgment other than the UW land acknowledgment to remove or replace it," meaning the only position professors' syllabi can take on this issue is the one preapproved by the Allen School.

Balazinska also claimed that Reges' land acknowledgment statement is "causing a disruption to instruction" (UW has not specified what that "disruption" is) and "is not related to the course content," and informed Reges that she unilaterally removed the language from his syllabus. Balazinska then emailed Reges's class apologizing because his syllabus allegedly "contained an offensive statement under the heading of 'Indigenous Land Acknowledgment.'"

As a public institution bound by the First Amendment, UW must uphold its professors' free speech and cannot discriminate against them based on viewpoint. UW is free to encourage its faculty to include land acknowledgment statements in their syllabi, and even to suggest examples, but it may not mandate that they either use only approved statements or remain silent on the issue.

I also e-mailed Prof. Balazinska to ask about a local story on the subject, and got this response:

The University of Washington is committed to providing an inclusive and equitable learning environment. The statement Stuart Reges included in his syllabus was inappropriate, offensive and not relevant to the content of the course he teaches. The invocation of Locke's labor theory of property dehumanizes and demeans Indigenous people and is contrary to the long-standing relationship and respect the UW has with and for the Coast Salish peoples and the federally recognized tribes within the state of Washington.

The Allen School and the UW reserve the right to amend academic materials in this way, as the syllabus for an intro to computer programming course is not the appropriate place or manner for a debate about land acknowledgements. Reges' statement, in fact, is not a land acknowledgement—and neither the UW nor the Allen School require a land acknowledgement to be included in a course syllabus. It first came to our attention due to student complaints and has already created a significant disruption to the academic purpose of the course.

Reges can and has expressed personal views with which the Allen School and the UW profoundly disagree on other platforms. However, a syllabus is not the appropriate place to express personal views unrelated to the course he is teaching.

My question in response, as you might gather, was:

I take it that his point was that the University's preferred land acknowledgment, which I understand professors are encouraged to include on their syllabuses, was not relevant to the content of the course he teaches, either.  Or am I mistaken on this?

Prof. Balazinska in turn responded:

The UW land acknowledgement is encouraged—again, not required—as a recognition of tribal sovereignty and stewardship of the land on which our campus sits. An instructor can opt to include the land acknowledgement or not. However, the course syllabus is not the appropriate place or manner in which to have a debate about or mock land acknowledgments and Indigenous people.

Here's my thinking: I agree that professors generally shouldn't include ideological messages in their syllabuses or other class materials that are unrelated to the subject matter. How people should react to the history of conquest is an interesting question, whether it's conquest in the Americas or in Europe or in the Middle East or anywhere else on a planet where most land has changed hands many times over the centuries. (I'm looking at you, Israel, Poland, Turkey, Alsace, Spain, Kosovo, East Prussia, Belgium, and too many other places to list.) But it's not something that I think belongs in computer science classes, or for that matter in my First Amendment class.

But once the university decides to encourage (even if not require) faculty to inject such matters into their syllabuses, it loses its ability to credibly fault faculty's rival statements as being supposedly "not relevant to the content of the course he teaches." Indeed, when it does so, it shows that it's interested in indoctrination, not education—that it thinks a syllabus is an "appropriate place" in which to push one side of the issue, but not an "appropriate place" "in which to have a debate" in which the other side of the issue can be presented. (And of course while Locke's theory of property is just one of many plausible theories, and indeed not the one that we usually think of when it comes to sovereignty claims, there's nothing "dehumanizing" about it or about its application to American Indian tribes.)

I don't include land acknowledgments in my syllabus, nor do I argue against them in my syllabus. Again, I do think that syllabuses aren't a place for ideological messages unrelated to the class topic. But the University of Washington obviously does think they are a place for ideological messages unrelated to the class topic—if they are ideological messages the University likes.