We recently discussed the controversy at Cypress College involving a professor becoming irate after student, Braden Ellis, stated that he felt police officers are heroes in our society. The College later put the teacher on leave. Now the faculty union at Cypress College has denounced the school for “a failure to be anti-racist” in its treatment of the teacher. I agree that a professor should not be fired or even suspended over such an incident, though the issue for me is academic freedom. However, there is a notable omission in the statement from Christie Diep, president of United Faculty of the North Orange County Community College District, and Mohammad M. Abdel Haq, its lead negotiator: a criticism of the professor for her overtly hostile and biased treatment of the student.
We previously discussed how the professor’s comments not only seemed strikingly intemperate but inaccurate. The professor insists (wrongly) that the police were created to track down runaway slaves. There may be places where the first official law enforcement bodies were created for such a purpose, but most police departments were obviously not created for such a purpose.
The discussion focused on the Nickelodeon show Paw Patrol, which faced criticism because it showed police in a positive light. In the video, one student agrees that maybe police should not be included as heroes in a children’s show — a view clearly favored by the professor who said that she would never call police if she were in trouble because “my life’s more in danger in their presence… I wouldn’t call anybody.”
The now viral video generated widespread criticism, though also some praise for the professor.
The letter from the United Faculty ignores the free speech rights of the student as well as the raw intolerance shown by the professor. Those concerns do not appear to merit even a mention in the letter. Instead, the statement declared that the College has endangered faculty and fueled attacks by “White supremacist organizations, news outlets, and individuals.” The statement notes that classes were cancelled and professors (confused with the unnamed professor in the video) received angry or threatening messages:
This harm, undoubtedly, has a disproportionate impact on BIPOC faculty and other minorities, as they are more likely to become targets of White supremacist organizations, news outlets, and individuals. The failure to issue a clear and strong statement of support for faculty under the existing circumstances is a failure to be anti-racist. It is a failure to protect our most vulnerable faculty.
My concern is over academic freedom. This professor, in my view, was clearly wrong in her response to this student and the intolerant atmosphere of her class toward his conservative viewpoints. However, firing a professor over such an incident chills the values of academic freedom that are the foundation for higher education.
However, there is also countervailing interests of the student which the faculty statement entirely ignores. This professor was rightfully condemned for her response and the statement should have expressed concern over the failure to afford this student, and other students, an environment that allows a free expression of ideas.
We should as faculty stand for academic freedom and free speech. If a professor is inviting discussion on issues like the cancel culture, she should be prepared to allow for a free flow of opposing or dissenting views. However, it is important for College to reaffirm the discretion of faculty in framing discussions and material. That is why any effective termination would be excessive, as opposed to addressing these concerns informally to ensure that the College remains a place for a diversity of opinion and viewpoints.