Academic Freedom in Crisis at SFSU
You may have been mystified and a little alarmed by a recent email you received from SFSU President, Lynn Mahoney. In the email, she describes – – in vague and extremely legalistic terms – – an “incident that occurred in an Islamic Studies class” and that has now triggered “systemwide antidiscrimination policies and processes.”
In fact, the “incident” involved our valued colleague, Maziar Behrooz, an Associate Professor in the Department of History. Professor Behrooz, an accomplished and esteemed scholar and teacher, included an historical image of the prophet Muhammed in a class lecture on the history of Islam. This is a drawing that Professor Behrooz has used in many lectures, and an image that can be easily purchased in the markets that surround holy shrines in Tehran, Professor Behrooz’s birthplace. A student complained – – first to Professor Behrooz and then to the department chair – – about the use of this image in the classroom. Subsequently, the university’s Office of Equity Programs & Compliance launched an investigation into Professor Behrooz’s class.
Let us be clear: Professor Behrooz was fulfilling his duties as a professor with care and professional acumen. Higher education often challenges assumptions and fosters dissonance. Squelching academic freedom is the easy way to avoid these moments; defending academic freedom offers a way to transform these moments into occasions for self-reflection and learning. Opening an investigation into our colleague’s teaching jeopardizes Professor Behrooz’s academic freedom and works to chill academic freedom for all of SFSU’s instructors and students.
Professor Behrooz’s plight underscores several alarming trends at SFSU and public universities more generally. Most critically, university administrators increasingly see academic freedom and freedom of expression not as the foundations of higher learning but instead as potential sources of legal exposure, negative publicity, and various kinds of liability. In other words, university administrators increasingly see academic freedom as a “problem,” rather than the engine that powers inquiry, debate, innovation, and enlightenment in the modern university.
We would advise SFSU President Lynn Mahoney and other administrators: this is no time to drown academic freedom in a bureaucratic stew of “systemwide policies and processes.” Across the country, including our own campus, politicians and outside groups have targeted higher education and academic freedom as threats to their conservative, even reactionary, policies and agendas. Throttling academic freedom at universities is part and parcel of controlling free expression, criticism, and difference all across the public sphere.
We believe that the administration’s treatment of Professor Behrooz also confirms an alarming pattern at San Francisco State University: it would be a mistake to view our university administration as trustworthy allies in the promotion and defense of academic freedom. As the founders of the American Association of University Professors realized more than a century ago, faculty – – those who do the actual teaching, research, and other academic labor that sustain a university – – are best able to articulate and secure “the free search for truth and its free exposition” (“1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure”). In times like these, faculty must look to each other for solidarity and strength.
We urge you, our colleagues, to join with each other and the CFA, to help rescue Professor Behrooz from his unconscionable situation. Write to President Lynn Mahoney (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Provost Amy Sueyoshi (email@example.com) to express your support for Professor Behrooz. Discuss academic freedom – – its nature and necessity – – with your students. Contact your colleagues to spread the word about academic freedom and its jeopardy at SFSU. (The SFSU-CFA Chapter has authored a publication you may find helpful: How to Speak Your Mind & Do It Safely: Principles of Free Speech & Know Your Academic Freedom Rights Handbook.)
Through the ongoing pandemic, despite shrinking salaries, and in the face of compulsive demands to do more with less, SFSU faculty have continued to excel – – producing ground-breaking scholarship and creative work, invigorating students with ideas and new knowledge and pedagogies, building and tending community, fusing social justice with higher learning. We – – and Professor Behrooz – – deserve better than confused and confusing administrative leadership.
SFSU-CFA Executive Board