Louisiana State University demonstrated its feeble commitment to academic freedom last year when the school fired a tenured professor over her occasional use of profanity and sexual humor in the classroom. Teresa Buchanan taught at LSU for nearly two decades and by all accounts her scholarship and service to the university was exceptional. She was known for her open rapport with students and for speaking her mind in the classroom. Buchanan acknowledges that she occasionally used profanity in her lectures as well as jokes, some of which were sexual in nature, but assumed that her adult students were mature enough to handle adult conversations. As she put it, “I’m not teaching Sunday school.” One student, however, felt differently and reported Buchanan’s language to school administrators. Charged with sexual harassment and creating a hostile learning environment, Buchanan found herself subject to 18 months of hearings, reviews, and appeals, before finally losing her job in June 2015. LSU’s decision to terminate Buchanan was all the more surprising since a faculty committee convened to investigate her conduct specifically ruled out termination as a possible consequence, recommending instead that Buchanan simply agree to refrain from using such language in the future. Buchanan is currently suing the school for violating her free speech and due process rights.
Northwestern promises its faculty and students “full freedom in research and in the publication of the results,” but administrators at the university’s Feinberg School of Medicine failed to live up to that pledge when they censored a faculty-produced bioethics journal based on the content of one issue and demanded that all future articles be reviewed by the administration prior to publication. The Winter 2014 issue of Atrium featured numerous contributions centered around a “Bad Girls” theme. Among these was an essay by a Syracuse University professor in which he wrote about becoming paralyzed decades earlier, recalling a series of consensual sexual encounters he had with a nurse during his treatment. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, administrators worried that the “Bad Girls” issue might hurt the Northwestern “brand” and that of the corporation that oversaw the university hospital system. School officials pressured Atrium’s publisher to remove the offending issue—and all back issues—from the website where they were hosted. Access to Atrium was only restored 14 months later, one day after the Feinberg School professor who edited the “Bad Girls” issue threatened to publicize the university’s censorship. Despite this positive step, Northwestern has informed Atrium editors that a newly formed oversight committee will begin reviewing the journal’s content prior to future publications.
These examples are far from isolated instances. Administrators failed to uphold academic freedom at Butler University, where unflattering coverage in the student newspaper led to the paper’s faculty advisor being removed and replaced with a member of the school’s public relations department. A faculty advisor for the student paper at Northern Michigan University was similarly ousted. And at the Community College of Philadelphia, an adjunct professor was suspended after speaking at a Black Lives Matter rally on campus.