When Margo Ramlal-Nankoe, assistant professor of sociology at Ithaca College, threatened to take legal action against the college for an alleged unfair denial of tenure, she said it was her political views that influenced the tenure decision. As reported in last week’s Ithacan, Ramlal-Nankoe claimed it was her teachings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and her involvement with Students for a Just Peace, a campus organization that objects to Israeli occupation of Palestine, that fueled her denial. Her argument calls into question the college’s commitment to academic freedom.
In response, the college reaffirmed that all tenure reviews are based on the same standards of evaluation — teaching, scholarship and service. The Ithaca College Faculty Handbook articulates the college’s support of academic freedom, stating that faculty have the right to choose their own topics of discussion, including controversial subjects, though it does warn against persistently introducing topics unrelated to subject matter.
Adam Kissel, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at FIRE, a national organization that defends individual rights and exposes illiberal democracy at academic institutions, said professors have a right to express their own views.
“Most [institutions] promise academic freedom in documents such as the faculty handbook,” he said. “In those cases the schools have contractual obligations to respect [professors’ rights].”
A letter Ramlal-Nankoe and her attorney sent to the college Sept. 16 included quotes from faculty and students praising her work, but it also included anecdotes about other professors, claiming their political views were held against them.
The letter cited Fred Wilcox, associate professor of writing at the college, as someone who has controversial political views and was treated unfairly because of them. Specifically, the letter said Howard Erlich, former dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, became openly hostile toward Wilcox after he spoke publicly.
Wilcox acknowledged that when he started teaching at the college in 1987, colleagues repeatedly warned him he should stifle his views for the sake of his employment but said he has never been intimidated or stopped from teaching what he wanted to.
“Ithaca College is a very open institution,” he said. “Academic freedom is not just a term, it is a practice. My own experience here has been really quite good.”
In his personal essay class, Wilcox said he asks students to write a final paper about the world they live in, which introduces political and social issues into the discussion. Wilcox, who said he is neither conservative nor liberal and has voted for Ralph Nader in past elections, said he shares his personal views with his students because he thinks they need to understand him to put the information he relays into context.
“I’m not going to hide [my views] from you, there’s no point in that,” he said. “I’m not subversive, I’m not trying to sort of move you from one point to the other without letting you know that I’m doing it. I don’t think that’s actually fair, I think that’s kind of devious.”
Asma Barlas, professor of politics and program director for the Center for the Study of Race, Culture and Ethnicity, said by being forthright about her own positions, she encourages students to stand up for what they think is right.
“If the teacher is … not taking a stand and just abdicating any responsibility then I think students also learn to be completely relativists and not take positions,” she said.
Senior Will Sterbenz, a politics major, said he respects when professors share their opinions because often students can sense their political leanings anyway.
“I want to know what this professor with 20 years of experience has to say,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Put down the gloves and tell me what you think.’”
But Wilcox said in higher education, there is always the risk that a professor will be marginalized because of his or her beliefs.
“When you say, ‘I’m not a liberal, I’m a radical,’ people get suspicious,” he said. “You get labeled and that creates distrust.”
Former professor Carolyn Byerly, who once taught television-radio at the college, sued the college in 2002 when she was denied tenure, which Byerly claimed was because of her gender and sexual orientation. The case was revisited in a New York Times article Sept. 19 where she claimed the denial of her tenure was based on her radical views and harsh, unfounded student evaluations.
Byerly, who lost the case, is now a tenured faculty member at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
Robert Bluey ’01 was enrolled in one of Byerly’s classes in 1998 and said, while the real problem with Byerly was bad teaching, there was no question that her political beliefs were injected into her subject matter.
“It’s not as if it was an alternative journalism class,” he said. “In an intro-level class like that there’s really not a whole lot of discussion on political journalism.”
But concern over repercussions from expressing political views is not limited to the left.
Frank Musgrave, professor of economics at the college, said being labeled is more serious for a conservative among an overwhelmingly liberal population.
“In the literature I’ve explored, conservatives are less likely to get promoted, less likely to be accepted in publications, there’s a whole series of things,” he said.
In 2003, the Ithaca College Republicans, which Musgrave advises, conducted a survey of the political party registration of professors of the social sciences and related fields. Of the 125 professors included in the study, more than 93 percent were registered Democrats or Greens. Musgrave said the campus composition today is not only unchanged, but leans farther left.
He said he disagrees with the idea that professors should share their personal views in class, but there has to be a structure in place for students to be presented with multiple views, especially since the conservative side of political arguments is so underrepresented here.
“I’m very fearful of what’s happening,” he said. “I don’t mean the liberals are beating the conservatives, that’s pretty obvious here … so be it. But the kind of attitude that nothing can be heard on the other side is very troubling, academically and politically.”
Roger Custer ’04, former president of IC Republicans and now conference director for Young America’s Foundation, a conservative organization for young adults, said the college cannot fulfill its mission for students to graduate with a global perspective if they are only getting one side of every argument, but he thinks the place for that is outside the classroom, through a diversity of speakers and events. He said when professors inject their personal opinions it influences the views of students.
“It’s the most essential time in most people’s lives in terms of forming opinions,” he said. “That’s why I think it’s so important for students to be presented with all sides.”
Junior Scott Smolinski, a member of IC Republicans, said his professors try to be unbiased, but it’s the students who can single out people who don’t share their views.
“It’s usually the students who are buying into these other viewpoints,” he said. “[As a Republican] you have to work really hard to defend yourself.”
Bluey, a conservative blogger and director of the Center for Media and Public Policy at The Heritage Foundation, said he thinks he was better off being a conservative at the college because he was always challenged to back up his opinion.
He said by not providing an alternative point of view, the college isn’t just hurting conservatives, but liberals.
“If you’re a liberal and all you hear is liberal ideas,” he said. “It really does you no benefit.”
“I really do wish there could be more of a dialogue on this campus between conservatives, if that’s what they want to call themselves, and liberals, whatever that means,” he said.
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