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Bonneau Says: Just When I Thought I Was Done….

  • Bonneau Says:

    Just When I Thought I Was Done….


    I thought I said everything I needed to say about academic freedom and faculty speech in my last column. But then this happened. And this. And it turns out that these raise slightly different issues than the others cases I considered last time.

    Let’s start with the suspension of Larycia Hawkins by Wheaton College. What did Hawkins do to get suspended? She posted on her personal Facebook page that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. A fairly innocuous statement, which some people agree with and others do not. However, administrators at Wheaton have concluded that this statement contradicts the College’s Statement of Faith and Educational Purpose, to which all faculty must sign and adhere.

    Gloomy campus through window: black and white

    Certainly, religious educational institutions are within their legal rights to have such statements and to force those who work for the institutions to abide by them. Whether or not Hawkins’ statement violates that statement is something about which thoughtful people can disagree. As a non-member of that community, I have no position on that.

    What I do have a position on, though, is whether Hawkins’ rights as a faculty member were violated.  For better or worse, the fact is that schools who force their faculty members to abide by a code of faith or conduct act in disregard of the principles of academic freedom. These codes state that certain lines of inquiry, certain viewpoints, certain conclusions are forbidden at the institution. When a scholar decides to work at a place like this, he/she is giving up his/her rights to academic freedom. Who is to decide whether Hawkins’ statement contradicted Wheaton’s Faith Statement? The Wheaton administration. And they concluded she did. Certainly, Wheaton did not have to suspend her; but they were operating within their rights to do so. And we should not be surprised by this.

    The Hawkins case also raises an issue for prospective faculty to consider when accepting positions at institutions that require the signing of a faith statement. In addition to the abridgment of academic freedom these statements represent, they cross a boundary between one’s professional life and personal life. That is, if you somehow fall short of the institution’s mission in your personal life, this could cost you your job. Lest, you think this is a far-fetched hypothetical, see these two cases.

    Contrary to the Hawkins case, it appears that Florida Atlantic’s decision to fire James Tracy does violate faculty rights. Tracy is a Sandy Hook “Truther,” who has argued publicly on his private blog and other public venues that Sandy Hook (and other mass shootings) never happened. Despite the ludicrousness of his claims (and the harm it certainly causes to the victims of that tragedy), it is unclear what he has done to warrant termination. He does not associate himself with his employer on his blog, and he has a disclaimer saying the views there are his alone.

    Undoubtedly, having Tracy on faculty is embarrassing to Florida Atlantic, but they are the ones who decided to tenure him. Moreover, they knew about his beliefs and writing on Sandy Hook and determined in 2013 his views were not grounds for termination.

    Unless Tracy’s professional behavior violates the faculty code of conduct, the university is violating his rights by firing him. If Florida Atlantic believes Tracy has engaged in research misconduct or is failing to live up to his research or teaching obligations as a tenured faculty member, then they should initiate proceedings to have him removed. Absent that, there is nothing they can do that is consistent with the protections of tenure and academic freedom. Nobody wants to defend James Tracy; he is contemptible. But tenure and academic freedom are essential to the scholarly enterprise and must be defended and protected, even in a case like this.


    Chris Bonneau

    Bonneau Says is a monthly (more or less) Profology column from Chris W. Bonneau with his thoughts on important issues facing academics, and his life as a professor. 

    Chris is associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, where he has been since 2002. His research is primarily in the areas of judicial selection (specifically, judicial elections) and judicial decisionmaking. Bonneau's work has been supported by the National Science Foundation and he has published numerous articles, including in the American Journal of Political Science and Journal of Politics. He is also the coauthor of three books: Strategic Behavior and Policy Choice on the U.S. Supreme Court (2005), In Defense of Judicial Elections (2009), and Voters' Verdicts: Citizens, Campaigns, and Institutions in State Supreme Court Elections (2015). Currently, Bonneau is co-editor of State Politics and Policy Quarterly, the official journal of the State Politics and Policy Section of the American Political Science Association.

    Professor Bonneau teaches undergraduate classes in constitutional law, judicial politics, and research methods, as well as graduate classes in judicial politics and research design. He has served on the Tenure and Academic Freedom Committee at Pitt since since 2011.


  • Bob Ertischek likes this
  • Bob Ertischek
    Bob Ertischek "Nobody wants to defend James Tracy; he is contemptible." Agreed.
    January 5, 2016
  • Bob Ertischek
    Bob Ertischek Florida Atlantic University has officially fired the professor who has attracted national publicity by claiming the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax and then publicly feuding with the parents of one of the victims.  more
    January 5, 2016