We have been following various controversies involving academics who have referred to Covid-19 as the “China Virus” or the “Wuhan Virus.” There is even a lawsuit on the issue. There is now an interesting case brewing at the University of Dallas. Professor William Atto is accused of using the reference on a syllabus, which the student newspaper University News called “misnaming COVID-19” and violating the university policy on such references. In response, the head of the History Department, Susan Hanssen, came out in support of her colleague and denied that any such policy exists.
Hanssen threw down the gauntlet with those trying to force out her colleague and called upon the Catholic university to support academic freedom in a column with the site The College Fix.
Hanssen notes how faculty members across the country have been silenced by the fear of being tagged as racist or insensitive in fights over academic freedom. She said that she has had enough with the cancel culture and its impact on higher education in a column where she declared “I will not be silent.”
Hanssen states that the university responded to the campaign by telling Atto on August 26th to change his syllabus. Atto complied and emailed students that the syllabus was changed to comply with “US Policy.” However, she notes that this was not sufficient for activists who have demanded his termination.
She raises what could be an important legal issue in this and other controversies: whether faculty are required to refer to the virus in a particular way:
“The article was published more than three weeks after the professor was attacked on social media for his choice of words, and reports that “University practice is to refer to this virus as COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2 in accord with medical and scientific literature.”
The print version, published Thursday, called it a “policy,” however, and alluded to “disciplinary actions.”
As chair of the History Department, it was news to me — and likely all faculty — that the university has a policy on referring to COVID. If it does in fact have such a policy, it certainly was not circulated before faculty drafted their syllabi in August.”
That presents an interesting contractual question. (This is a private institution so the free speech protections under the First Amendment do not apply as they do with professors at state schools. However, this is still an institution of higher education that is committed to academic freedom.) The university states in the Faculty Handbook that “any member of the community of scholars enjoys academic freedom to profess and teach objectively any intellectual position within their academic expertise.”
However, it also notes that such freedom must be exercised within a “framework”: “When a faculty member signs an employment agreement with the University, it is presumed that the faculty member knows and respects the purposes for which the institution exists. These purposes are expressed in chapter 1 of this Handbook.” Chapter 1 reaffirms the goals of a Catholic higher education.
Clearly, racist terms do not have to be spelled out in a list to be addressed by the faculty. However, I could not find any statements from the university that referring to the virus by its presumed original origin is prohibited or not protected by academic freedom.
As we have previously discussed, terms like the “Chinese virus” have been widely used by various experts and commentators, including in scientific journals. Indeed, two Chinese experts referred to this as the “Wuhan virus” until they were pressured to take down their column.
While it is widely viewed as racially insensitive and inflammatory, the use is also heavily imbued with political meaning. Many, including members of Congress continue to use this term because of its origins. Moreover, many object that China has lied about the origins of the virus and arrested scientists who tried to tell the world about its dangers. It is political speech. (I have not used the term and instead to “COVID-19” OR “coronavirus” but it is chilling to see a public university encouraging students to stop others from referring to the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus.) This remains a point of political debate.
The use of such labels is common in science and politics. People still refer to the “London variant” and “South Africa variant” of Covid. Other virus and diseases have been associated with areas where they originated like Zika, or Ebola. Notably, the media routinely refers to the South African variant or other variants by locations such as London and India. While the “Spanish flu” may not have started in Spain, it is still the common label for that epidemic. Indeed, it was the term used by many scientists in the early stages and even liberals. HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher noted correctly “Scientists, who are generally pretty liberal, have been naming diseases after the places they came from for a very long time.”
I personally do not use the term because it is viewed as offensive by many and Covid-19 is now commonly used. However, the question is whether academics can or should be sanctioned for opting to the reference. That is why Hanssen’s column is so interesting. If there was no policy of the university on the question, it is hard to see how Atto could be forced to adopt the preferred name without some finding or explanation on the prohibition.
At a minimum, Hanseen is correct about the obligation of the school to be clear on such policies as well as the status (and academic freedom rights) of Professor Atto.