By moving last month to review its harassment policy, the code designed to punish “offensive” behavior or speech, Emory is engaging in a national debate over what professors can say in the classroom and the extent to which speech can be curbed on college campuses.
An incident last month at the Georgia Institute of Technology added fuel to the ongoing controversy, and for some, it echoed the concerns a handful of Emory professors have expressed that the University’s policy already has a chilling effect on campus speech.
In the Tech incident, which took place in a political science class, a student, praising President Bush’s policies, reportedly egged her professor into a clash on medical care. The professor objected.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” the professor said. “George Bush isn’t doing anything for you. He’s too busy pimping for the Christian Coalition.”
The student was offended and filed a complaint, which Tech administrators said they are investigating. The investigation is similar to an inquiry that began on Emory’s campus in September when an anthropology professor used the n-word at a department meeting, leading a colleague to file a complaint. Though Emory found that the comment was not tantamount to harassment, the University still censured the professor, punishing her because the comment was deemed inappropriate, not because it violated the policy.
The jarring race conflict that the incident ignited led Emory to review its harassment rules, sometimes referred to as the speech code. Administrators say they despise that term because the University does not have a blacklist of forbidden words or phrases the way speech codes do. Instead, the policy allows the University to punish professors for generally “offensive” speech.
“I think that what has come to light over the years is that this is a very bad policy and there are a lot of problems with it,” said Ann Hartle, a professor of philosophy who has been among the policy’s most vocal critics. “I can think that what people say is stupid, can think it’s uninformed, bigoted, but that’s the price you pay. I accept that as what it means to be in an institution where people are invited to speak their mind.”
The controversy is confusing for many, because there are actually two policies that could be altered. Both are required by federal law. The first is the discriminatory harassment policy, which prohibits behavior or speech that would make an employee’s work life intolerable. The other is a non-discrimination policy, which states that Emory will not hire or fire people based on race or sex.
The eight-person panel made up of staff and faculty, which was created to look into the speech code, may suggest several changes, including consolidating the two policies into one. They may also promote mediation before a complaint is investigated. The committee originally expected to finish at semester’s end, but it may not wrap up until the fall.
Much of their time has been spent examining the wording of the harassment policy to balance academic freedom while “ensuring an open, non-discriminatory climate,” said College Dean Robert Paul, who is co-chairing the panel with University General Counsel Kent Alexander.
“Everyone wants to preserve the maximum amount of academic freedom… while still [adhering] to federal law,” Paul said.
The national debate has largely been spurred by David Horowitz, the conservative author who is scheduled speak in Glenn Memorial Auditorium Thursday.
Horowitz has pushed to get an “academic bill of rights” through the Colorado and Georgia state legislatures. His bill calls on schools to ensure that both liberal and conservative speakers are brought to their campuses, and to consider diverse political views in their hiring practices.
Horowitz’s bill would make sure liberal and conservative political views are balanced in classrooms.
On March 23, the Georgia Senate passed a nonbinding resolution almost identical to Horowitz’s bill. It has no enforcement power, but is meant primarily as an “urging bill,” its supporters told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The review of Emory’s harassment policy was set to coincide with a separate panel’s examination of the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs, which looks into harassment and discrimination complaints. University President James W. Wagner has asked the committee to report on the EOP by the end of the semester.
Amid the various reviews of University policy, the administration may also issue a “climate survey” as a way of gauging how much staff and faculty like working at Emory.
The idea for the survey is two years old, and began when the President’s Commission on the Status of Minorities wanted to assess the campus’ racial climate.
Though the administration initially supported the idea, PCSM was ultimately not permitted to distribute its race survey. Within the last few months, Human Resources has instead been asked to assess the general climate on campus, though the survey appears to lack a specific focus on race. Alice Miller, the director of Human Resources, was on vacation last week, but Patricia Douglas, assistant vice president of Human Resources, confirmed that the climate survey is under serious consideration.
“We’ve never done one,” Douglas said. “And there’s been a lot of talk among us that we should probably be doing one and this has been running parallel to what the minority commission has been doing.”
John Hammond, the incoming chair of the PCSM, said the survey might have lightened the simmering racial conflict that began last semester had the Commission been given the go-ahead. A group of faculty and staff are meeting privately to discuss racial tensions, he said, but their discussions are a reaction to last semester’s controversy. The survey might have allowed Emory to act proactively.
“It’s not productive to wonder what could have happened,” Hammond said. “But I wonder if two years ago, had we been given the green light, if we could have come up with an agenda that would have called for these community meetings two years ago.”