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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Freedom of speech versus silence

Tia Pratt teaches a class about African-American Catholicism in April, 2017 (Photo by Luke Malanga ’20).

Adjunct professors discuss inability to share opinions

At St. Joe’s, faculty are well aware of current debates about freedom of expression playing out across the country.

In one case that made national headlines this summer, James Livingston, Ph.D., a tenured professor of history at Rutgers University, was found guilty for violating the university’s discrimination and harassment policy for a Facebook post he made that was critical of white gentrification in his New York neighborhood.

After Livingston, who is white, received intense backlash for his posts, including death threats, Rutgers began an investigation and eventually concluded that while Livingston had a right to express his opinions, he had violated the university’s policy prohibiting discrimination and harassment.

William McDevitt, Ph.D., associate professor of management and president of the Saint Joseph’s University Chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), said many St. Joe’s faculty are mindful of what they say in the classroom, especially in the current political climate.

“I am sure that many adjuncts and non-tenured faculty, and even tenured faculty, have to consider whether they should tailor what they say in order to avoid being the target of threats,” McDevitt said.

The AAUP has issued several reports in the last decade that cite the efforts of various political and religious organizations to undermine free speech on college campuses in the name of defending it.

According to the Saint Joseph’s University Faculty Handbook, regardless of their status as tenured or non-tenured, St. Joe’s faculty have the right to freedom in their classroom in discussing course content, but, according to the handbook, they also “should not deliberately inject into their teaching controversial matter which has no proper relation to the subject.”

The handbook also states that each department should define its own policy while “keeping in mind compliance with equal opportunity/anti-discrimination standards.”

Like Rutgers, St. Joe’s also has a separate Policy Prohibiting Discrimination, Harassment and Retaliation, which applies to all university employees and defines discrimination as any “distinction, preference, or detriment to an individual as compared to others in the terms or conditions of his or her employment or education on the basis of his or her Protected Category status.”

Ronald Dufresne, Ph.D., associate professor of management and president of Faculty Senate, said academic titles and ranks — that is, a faculty member’s status — should not determine the way a faculty member interacts with or is perceived by students. That’s especially true of adjunct faculty, Dufresne said.

“Our adjunct colleagues are just as valuable parts of faculty as anyone else,” Dufresne said. “All of our colleagues that are here, belong. All of our professors are legitimate. All of our professors are trustworthy.”

In reality many untenured faculty members do believe that being untenured means less freedom.

“The level of comfort a faculty member has in speaking freely in class depends in large part on that professor’s silo and the protections that come with it,” said Tia Pratt, Ph.D., a former visiting professor of sociology at St. Joe’s, who left the university at the end of the spring semester after completing a fourth and final contract year as a visiting professor. “I would say that an adjunct has the least amount of protections while a tenured full professor has the most.”

Caroline Meline, Ph.D., adjunct professor of philosophy and head of St. Joe’s Adjunct Association, is one of nearly 500 contingent faculty members on campus. This number includes non-tenured, adjunct and visiting faculty.

Meline said while she has never censored herself in the classroom, she knows that is not the case for others.

“I’ve heard some other people feel that their contracts were not renewed because of things they may have said,” Meline said.

When asked if the university had ever chosen not to renew a faculty contract because of comments the faculty member made in or out of the classroom, University Provost Jeanne Brady, Ph.D., did not respond.

Anthony Palma, adjunct professor of English, said he tends to shy away from conflict in his class, partially because of his status as a non-tenured professor.

“There is always that lingering fear that something you say or do will affect students in a way you don’t anticipate and could result in them either challenging your status or elevating a situation,” Palma said. “It is in those moments where you really understand your vulnerability as an adjunct.”

David Parry, associate professor and chair of communications studies, said there is definitely a power discrepancy among faculty members.

“There are a lot of ways that non-tenured faculty members are exploited, are required to act differently and are normatively encouraged to act differently,” Parry said.

But in regard to freedom of expression and construction of classroom discourse, Parry said the tenured versus non-tenured distinction is not where the greatest disparity exists.

“You would see greater differences in faculty across another axis, for instance, in faculty of color, or marginalized faculty,” he said. “Faculty who are exposed in some other way probably have to be more careful about their speech in the classroom than tenured or non-tenured faculty.”

Pratt acknowledged her race and gender were factors in her willingness to speak up in the classroom, especially because she was aware that a number of students at St. Joe’s had never interacted with a woman of color in a position of authority.

“I took great care in what I said in class and sometimes avoided opportunities to speak directly to the events of the day, which included events on campus, because I needed an offer of courses for the following semester,” Pratt said. “If I addressed them at all, it was indirectly.”

First hired as an adjunct professor and then given a one-year, renewable contract as a visiting professor, Pratt said she felt like she had more security as a visiting professor, so she was able to push herself in addressing important issues.

In 2016, after speaking at a panel on Jesuit slaveholding at the Cardinal Foley Campus Center, Pratt said she stopped holding back.

“With the limited protections that come with being a full-time visiting instructor, I decided that I would be my authentic self and stop making end-runs around the important points I should be making in class,” Pratt said.

Pratt said she began more deliberately addressing issues about race in her classroom in her last two years at St. Joe’s.

“I began talking more forcefully about things like systemic racism and intersectionality across all of my classes,” Pratt said. “I want to be clear. I always tackled these issues. Doing so is essential for a sociology professor. However, I did them in such a way as to not make anyone uncomfortable.”

Pratt said that decision was as much for students of color as for herself.

“I realized that in pushing white students, in particular, to think about issues of race and racism in a way they hadn’t considered before, I was also showing students of color that they could have at least one professor at SJU who would do that,” Pratt said. “I don’t regret it.”

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