University Senate Proposed: December 17, 2004
MEETING OF NOVEMBER 19, 2004
President Lee Bollinger, the chairman, called the Senate to order shortly after 1:15 pm in 501 Schermerhorn. Fifty-seven of 99 senators were present during the meeting.
Minutes and agenda: The minutes of October 22 and the agenda were adopted as proposed.
Report of the president: The president skipped his report.
Report of the Executive Committee chairman
Nominations to committees: Sen. Paul Duby (Ten., SEAS) asked for Senate approval of a list of changes in committees that had been distributed at the door.
Sen. Matan Ariel (Stu., GS) asked if a recent decision to change the date of the next plenary meeting from December 10 to December 17 requires a Senate vote. He said some students will have left town by December 17.
Sen. Duby thought no vote is needed. He said the Senate office schedules plenary meetings before the beginning of the academic year, trying wherever possible to accommodate the schedules of the president and the provost. He said a change in the president’s schedule was the reason for moving the December meeting back a week.
Howard Jacobson, the parliamentarian, said the Senate by-laws don’t address this question, saying only that there shall be regular monthly meetings, and describing a procedure for adding special meetings.
The Senate unanimously approved the proposed changes in the Senate and committee rosters.
--Meeting with Trustees: Sen. Duby said a February 2005 date has been set for a meeting between the Executive Committee and a group of Trustees on issues of community concern. He said one lesson learned from this effort is that these meetings have to be scheduled far in advance. In February the committee will try to set up next fall’s meeting, to allow for a better chance to restore the once-a-semester frequency for such meetings that is called for in the June 1987 letter from University Secretary Marion Jemmott affirming Senate-Trustee ties.
--Senate-consulted Trustees: A subcommittee of the Executive Committee proposing nominations for Senate-consulted Trustees has already met once and will meet again after the present meeting. Sen. Duby reminded senators that the subcommittee welcomes suggestions for nominees from other senators or anyone else in the Columbia community. The group will review a short list of names with a counterpart committee of Trustees, also probably in February.
Academic freedom and faculty responsibility: Sen. Duby recalled the president’s discussion of academic freedom issues at the October meeting. Since then the David Project film “Columbia Unbecoming,” which alleges intimidation of students in the classroom by some professors in the Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures, had been shown to a number of groups, including the Senate Student Affairs and Faculty Affairs committees. The Executive Committee decided to have further Senate discussion at the present meeting, not of the film but of two fundamental issues involved in the current controversy.
One is academic freedom, along with the faculty responsibilities it implies. The other is the question of grievance procedures available to students for complaints of classroom intimidation.
Sen. Duby said that since “Columbia Unbecoming” has not been made available to everyone, the transcript of the film is available in the Senate office for senators who would like to read it. But the Executive Committee decided not to distribute the transcript, believing it would not be useful to discuss the film in an open meeting. He asked senators to focus their comments on academic freedom and procedures for student grievances. He listed the documents that had been included in the Senate packet.
Student Affairs: Sen. Nathan Walker (Stu., TC), a committee co-chair, reported the following developments:
1. The group met earlier that day with Eric Furda, vice president for university development and alumni relations. Students will be taking part in a meeting with the council of alumni affairs directors in February on alumni-student relations.
2. Business School senators James Schmidt and Adam Michaels during the past week conducted a highly successful mentoring session with undergraduates. Their model might be useful to other graduate schools.
3. Students have launched their national tuition endowment initiative. Sen. Walker invited senators to look at the NTE Web site (www.tuitionendowment.org). He said peer schools are actively pursuing this effort, and the Web site is getting many daily hits. Sen. Walker thanked Provost Brinkley and Director of Government Relations Ellen Smith for their support, as well as Digital Knowledge Ventures for volunteering their help with the Web initiative.
4. Students had several responses to the film “
--Discussion of issues of academic freedom and faculty responsibility raised by the David Project film “Columbia Unbecoming”: The president said the floor was open.
Sen. Michael Adler (Ten., Bus.) called for discussion of the idea of harmful speech—akin to crying fire in a public theater—a kind of speech that he said should be banned on campus.
The president said there clearly is speech on the campus that is subject to review, including sexual harassment and racial harassment. The university has policies on these categories of speech and can take action when they are infringed. In addition, as he had said at the previous meeting, outright stupidity is not permitted in the institution, at least not in the classroom.
Other problems arise over claims of intimidation or bias or politicization of a classroom. There are shared understandings about kinds of behavior that should not be permitted. But the president said there may be disagreement about whether taking action against such behavior poses risks to academic freedom that should then lead the institution to do nothing. The president thought these risks are, in general, outweighed by the importance of making sure that students feel that they can learn in a safe environment.
He said issues like these require prolonged reflection over time, and should not be simply presented and then set aside. The other major issue is whether the institution has adequate procedures in place to address complaints of classroom intimidation.
Sen. Kacy Redd (Stu., GSAS) asked exactly how these procedures work.
The president said he would answer first, and hoped others would also weigh in. He recalled that when he was a law school dean he heard a number of complaints each year from students who claimed that a faculty member had said something offensive. The dean’s job, he said, is to go speak to the faculty member, communicate the complaint, and ask if there is a response. The dean can leave it that, or, if a similar incident occurs again, return to it. If a problem of classroom intimidation persists, an administrator has the option of taking a range of steps, including reducing a faculty member’s annual salary increase. For more serious cases, an administrator has to proceed to more serious sanctions. The process for removing a tenured faculty member presents a very difficult obstacle, but there are also intermediate steps. The president said he has found in thirty years in the academy that every case of this kind that he has encountered has been worked through satisfactorily.
The president asked administrators responsible for other procedures involving student grievances to speak.
Provost Alan Brinkley, whose November 12 letter to the Columbia community and enumeration of available grievance procedures for students had been distributed in the Senate packet, addressed the question of what a student should do if he or she doesn’t feel confident in presenting a grievance to the department chair, for example. He said the answer is to go to the next step, which is a dean or, in the case of the Arts and Sciences, the A&S vice president. A student who for whatever reason is not comfortable at this level, should go to the provost. This sequence of steps is for grievances that don’t fall under the purview of the office of affirmative action and equal opportunity, involving discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability – the protected categories. The provost said going to the ombuds office does not foreclose any of the other processes, and is a good place to get advice and, when appropriate, help with mediation.
Sen. Nicholas Dirks, A&S vice president, said he is new in his job, but is committed to hearing any grievance from A&S students. Understanding the difficulties for students of coming forward, he has begun to discuss with the executive committee of the A&S faculty the idea of setting up a standing faculty committee that would consult with relevant administrators about ways to handle student grievances that protect confidentiality and anticipate other problems that might arise. The committee would advise him on grievances from A&S students. He hoped to have a procedure for grievances to be resolved at the level of his office within a few weeks.
Marsha Wagner, the ombuds officer, said she hears a continuum of complaints. Some concern faculty members who don’t submit grades on time or change the syllabus in the middle of the term, disregarding some regulation. Sometimes the complaint has to do with disrespect or insensitivity, and sometimes with a sense of intimidation. These are also in a wide range, which may involve a student who’s new to a subject matter feeling shy about disagreeing with a professor who has done years of research and presents it eloquently.
Ms. Wagner said there is a wide range of informal options for helping people. Sometimes she encourages students to exercise their own right of free expression, despite faculty members’ sometimes passionate convictions. Students sometimes worry that if they disagree with the professor they will get a lower grade. But Ms. Wagner had never heard an explicit complaint of actual retaliation by a faculty member in the form of lower grades. There is also a grade dispute remedy for such cases.
Sometimes the ombuds officer talks with a faculty member to arrange a special meeting with the student. Sometimes she talks with a faculty member without giving the name of the student who was uncomfortable in class, just to provide a heads-up that a particular joke wasn’t universally well received, or that the instructor may overlooked the feelings of some students. Cases like this may not involve a breach of academic freedom, but insensitivity about people from different backgrounds. An informal conversation like this may be a remedy in itself, bringing up points of view that the instructor hadn’t considered, and making it unnecessary to go to a higher level. But students always have the option of going to the procedures outlined by the provost.
Susan Rieger, associate provost for equal opportunity and affirmative action, said her office hears complaints of discrimination or harassment on account of their race, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation. The procedures are formal, she said. The grievant and the respondent both write statements. An ad hoc panel is set up to conduct an investigation. Sometimes it is difficult to draw the line between protected speech and discrimination. The formality of the procedures helps to protect both parties, she said.
Sen. Ariel said the sequence of grievances procedures leading from department chairs to the provost changes over at some point from advice and assistance to formal investigations with more serious consequences. Other violations of rules and policies have clear sanctions. When does a paper trail begin that can trigger a formal investigation, particularly if a dean chooses not to pursue a complaint?
The president said universities handle complaints of insensitivity and bias all the time, year in and year out, usually with informal complaints and discussions. He said every institution has to consider at some point whether the magnitude of the perceived problems necessitates more formal means of dealing with them. An administrator has a sense of this. If current arrangements are not working, what new procedures need to be put into place? The procedures have to address perceived problems, whether or not they’re real. How well is Columbia addressing these issues? The president said he had no preconceived judgments on this question.
The president said it is important to remember another vital issue about intellectual discourse. Faculty members make statements about any number of issues through their scholarship, their participation in public debate, and their teaching. How well is Columbia doing at enabling such discourse? The president said he was not talking about denouncing or censuring people for what they say, but about taking ideas seriously. He thought there is room for improvement by this measure, at Columbia and elsewhere.
Sen. Walker said student senators receive complaints from students constantly about various aspects of the institution, and have a pretty good understanding of these problems. He asked faculty senators how the current controversy has changed the culture for them. He mentioned a Michael Moore effect: Are faculty worried that students are making a movie about them? He said current policies do not take into consideration the impact of multimedia.
Sen. John Brust said the Michael Moore analogy suggests that there is footage of faculty harassing or intimidating students. But the David Project film only interviewed students about their classroom experiences.
Sen. Duby said the film does consist entirely of interviews. As for videotaping classes, he said the procedure is to ask the permission of the instructor or the dean. In Engineering, a lot of classes are available on video, or on the internet.
Sen. Christopher Davis (HS, Admin. Stf.) thought it would be useful and valuable to have a paper trail at some point. The question may be where that point is.
The president replied that the stakes go up with a paper trail, along with fear. This reaction can impair efforts to resolve complaints. He said he was not claiming that this problem should trump every other consideration, just that it’s an important fact of life and one to weigh in the balance.
Ms. Wagner responded to Sen. Walker’s question, saying that faculty have worried about the impact of multimedia and the internet on classroom discussions that they have assumed are protected by academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. The discussions are reported through multiple parties, maybe misrepresented, and the autonomy of the discourse is lost, especially over controversial topics, which could be American electoral politics or feminist literary criticism, or environmental studies, etc.
The president said Columbia wants to be a place where people can discuss even the issues that are leading some people to kill each other—or maybe especially those issues—in an academic environment according to the academic ethos as much as possible. The president said Columbia needs to ask itself how well it is doing at the very difficult job of providing these conditions, which are so important to the institution’s values.
Sen. Rebecca Baldwin (Stu., Nursing) said the hot-button issues in many classrooms are about precisely those protected categories—race, gender, religion, ability—that are the subject of formal complaint procedures. It’s impossible to pretend that race and religion are not centrally involved in disputes that arise in classes on the Middle East, for example. Sen. Ba;dwom thought a paper trail is useful to show when a discussion may have passed from the realm of protected speech to that of discrimination.
Provost Brinkley said a grievant needs to decide if the grievance concerns discrimination. If so, it goes to the vice provost for affirmative action, and a paper trail is created at that point. Certainly someone who feels he or she has been discriminated against will not be satisfied dealing with department chairs or deans. Students who aren’t sure should whether they have been discriminated against should discuss their complaint with the office of affirmative action.
The provost saw a difference between dealing with a department chair and with a dean. Department chairs are essentially mediators, he said, with no authority to launch an investigation or impose sanctions. The provost said there is a stronger argument for paper trials at the level of deans. As a department chair himself, he heard all sorts of complaints, most of them not suited for paper trails. The issues are complex, he said, but there are multiple outlets for people to use, and a grievant has to take some responsibility for figuring out the appropriate outlet.
Ms. Rieger added that her office does not always launch investigations, but also consults and offers advice. Sometimes it turns out that a grievant has been discriminated against or harassed, but the culprit does it to everyone, not just people in the protected categories. Her office is not the civility police, she said. But she does talk with people about complaints at the border of free speech and discrimination. Ms. Rieger added that the First Amendment is needed not for inoffensive or uncontroversial ideas, but for the hard ones. She supported the president’s view that Columbia should be a place where the hard discussions can take place.
Sen. Eugene Galanter (Ten., A&S/NS) asked for more precision about what a paper trail is.
The president said the institution could have a rule that anytime any complaint is ever made about anybody, the person receiving the complaint has to write it up and put it in a file.
Sen. Avery Katz (Ten., Law) said he was struck by the focus in the present discussion on procedural arrangements, involving documentation requirements, the chain of authority, and the like. He said the documents distributed seemed to fall into the same category: the academic freedom statement is largely procedural; the statement on teaching refers to a substantive standard, but in a very general way. The problem, he said, is that the substantive standards of academic freedom are not being clearly stated. They’re left at a general, sometimes even platitudinous level. And because the concretization of these ideas is developed in disputes that are in private the benefit of case law is not available. In situations where a standard is contested, as in the case of academic freedom, then no matter how elaborate the process gets, it will inevitably leave onlookers with some uncertainty. One problem of legitimacy is that the absence of clearly articulated standards creates some uncertainty about what behavior is appropriate, and that creates anxiety.
Sen. Katz said anxiety might be seen as was a desirable result of the necessary generality of the tenure standard, to which the president had analogized the standard of academic freedom at the previous meeting. Anxiety makes tenure candidates work harder and more productively. But in the setting of academic freedom, the anxiety makes it more difficult to tell whether or not other parties in the judicial and quasi-judicial aspects of the system are operating in good faith. He urged the group to devote some attention to making the ideal of academic freedom more concrete by providing some of its outer boundaries, and a better shared understanding of when somebody might be acting in good faith, and when not. Such an effort would do more than elaborate procedures to improve the atmosphere of trust.
Sen. Litwak disagreed with Sen. Katz, saying some situations are fundamentally ambiguous and don’t allow specific rules. He said it is easy to know the difference between day and night at midday and midnight, but sundown isn’t so easy. This fundamental ambiguity also applies to concepts like academic freedom. In such cases we need to rely on courts to make the decisions.
Sen. Katz said that approach does not work well with contested standards.
Ms. Rieger recalled C. Vann Woodward’s claim in a report he wrote for Yale in 1975 on freedom of speech, that freedom of speech is more important to the university than any other value, including civility and even rationality. During the 1980s Michigan, Wisconsin, and other universities came up with speech codes. Most of them were struck down.
Sen. Silverstein said Columbia has a poor system for introducing faculty to the university as a workplace. No corporation would introduce officers as informally and with as few preparatory pieces of information as Columbia does when it hires faculty. As a former chairman, Sen. Silverstein said, he did not better that situation. But the university also did not prepare him well. This deficiency is reflected in issues ranging from how to use university stationery to what is misconduct in science and how to deal with it. He suggesting requiring an introduction to the university for new faculty, showing some essential institutional rules and operations.
The president said the university does seem to exist extraordinarily harmoniously, with a level of autonomy unmatched by any organization of comparable scale and responsibility. One facet of this autonomy is in teaching. He recalled going into a classroom as a young instructor and just starting to teach courses, including subjects he hadn’t studied in school. He noted that as Columbia becomes a more global institution in a world with such difficult problems, there may be new strains on the university’s autonomy.
The president said finding the right balance for academic freedom is difficult. The more the institution leans toward helping with complaints and sensitivities, the more it may be creating an atmosphere chilling and intimidating to faculty. He said it essential to find ways to talk about these difficult issues, and the Senate is one forum for doing that because it brings people together from all over the university. If the university can’t articulate the kind of intellectual climate it needs, along with procedures for maintaining it, who else will do it?
The president adjourned the meeting at around 2:30 pm.
Tom Mathewson, Senate staff