This past weekend, I was engaged in a fierce debate on Facebook about academic freedom. What led to the debate was was a video that has gone viral. The video is of William Penn, an English professor at Michigan State University. As a result of that video’s circulation, the university suspended him from teaching the class. Given his apparent age and his salary, $146,510, I suspect that he’s tenured.

So what was the debate about? Academic freedom. A FB friend–I’ll call him Professor A [Note: I never quote FB friends by name because I respect the privacy of FB friends.]–who is a fellow tenured academic and a libertarian, wrote the following on FB:

While his remarks were often crude and offensive, they clearly deserved protection under any sound doctrine of academic freedom. This suspension is an extremely worrisome precedent for those of us who still value universities as centers of free, and sometimes offensive, speech.

The question I raised was whether academic freedom applies to professors only. When I went through the whole 9-minute video, I concluded that Professor Penn was making it very difficult for students to disagree. I think defense of academic freedom requires defense of students’ academic freedom too: in this case, the freedom to question and disagree without reasonable fear of reprisal.

Another FB friend, and a fellow libertarian economics professor–call him Professor B–suggested that the students were basically wimps who didn’t even try to argue. He and I agreed that the students did not try to argue. I disagreed about whether we could say they are wimps.

Yet another FB libertarian economics professor, Professor C, took my side of the issue, writing:

He [Professor Penn] says, “I am a college professor. If I find out you are a closet racist I am coming after you. Okay. This country still is full of closet racists.” That’s a threat. And it seems only reasonable for a student to fear that being a Republican is proof (in the professor’s eyes) of being a “closet racist.” So, basically, I”m out to get all the Republicans in this class. Nope, that ain’t protected speech under AAUP [American Association of University Professor] standards, or any reasonable and good set of standards.

Professor B said that in his days as a student, he and I were willing to challenge professors with whom we disagreed. That’s true. But I pointed out that I had never had a professor who so aggressively made fun of people’s color, age, and politics. Penn was a master of ad hominem. And, remember, this was a class in writing: I would think that one of the first things you should teach in such a class is that the arguments a person makes should be separated from his motives, his race, his age, and his wealth.

I hasten to add that I don’t know that the students would face retribution for disagreeing, but I know people well enough that I do know that many of the students would reasonably fear retribution. When we are given the power to teach for a quarter or semester, we professors are being trusted to treat the students fairly. Building a safe environment for students while still teaching controversial issues on which we have strong views is tricky. At times we’re walking a tightrope. In my view, Professor Penn wasn’t even trying to walk a tightrope. He was just venting his own feelings and not, apparently worrying about what that would do to the learning environment. None of this means that I think Penn should have necessarily been suspended. But I do think that he deserved a strong “talking-to.”

Incidentally, I could never get Professor A, the original person who raised the issue, to respond on whether students should be guaranteed academic freedom.

What do you think? Is it important for universities to protect the academic freedom of students?