By The Gettysburgian Editorial Board
Colleges and universities are institutions that are meant to guide humanity into the future. Ideas—new and old—are exchanged, discussed, studied and analyzed in the pursuit of knowledge. The nature of academia is inherently divisive because of its role as a place for contradicting views and ideas to be challenged. This divisiveness is by design—existing knowledge, opinions and theories are meant to be explored, critiqued and improved upon.
Naturally, disagreements can lead to conflict. Higher education is meant to serve as the platform for the peaceful exchange of differing, or even contradictory, ideas. Without dialogue, disagreeing sides cannot work together to come to resolution. However, time and time again, hateful ideas have been able to spread through the lens of academic and scientific study. Additionally, censorship remains an issue on campuses as universities debate the limits of free speech.
Gettysburg College, and higher education in general, must work to curate academic environments that promote the advancement of human knowledge through the curation of respectful, good-faith dialogue while also avoiding the spread of inaccurate information. This is to avoid subsequent promotion of pseudoscience, but excessive censorship of faculty and students also must not be allowed as a response to misinformation; this can be equally as damaging to the learning environment.
Schools around the country have already faced much controversy about what a learning environment should look like. Earlier this year, English Professor Sam Joeckel of Palm Beach Atlantic University was fired after over 20 years working at the school. The reasoning—complaints about his English Composition II course’s unit on racial injustice was “indoctrinating students.” This included teaching on the writings of prominent Black Americans—Martin Luther King, Jr, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Malcolm X, Booker T. Washington—key figures in American history who are widely read and frequently discussed on college campuses.
Challenging preconceived beliefs of students is not indoctrination—it is exactly how students grow throughout their college years. It is not the job of the professor to tell students how to think, nor is it to force their beliefs onto students. But professors must be able to present information to students that challenges them, allowing students to form their own opinions based on classroom learning. If students disagree with the professor, they should express why. Otherwise, no learning occurs.
Further, the university cited misdirection of his teaching of the course as the reason for his termination. Provost Chelly Templeton stated, “Faculty are free to choose a theme that unifies their Composition II course. However, it is important that the Composition II objectives remain the focus of the course.” This decision clearly shows how the administration of Palm Beach Atlantic University is not concerned with crafting an academic environment based on learning. Censorship in this manner inhibits the academic freedom of faculty and students alike—information offered to students is limited while professors are unable to have control over their own course material.
Palm Beach Atlantic University is unique among colleges and universities because it does not offer tenure positions to faculty. Academic tenure is one protection that some professors are able to obtain from arbitrary termination. When professors earn tenure, they sign-on to work for a college or university indefinitely. In other words, they cannot be fired from their position without very strong reasoning to do so. 67% of current Gettysburg College faculty are tenured, theoretically protecting their freedom both in the classroom and in their academic work from outside influence.
Tenure can also have downsides. Tenured faculty are often treated as if they have complete immunity, allowing serious misconduct to occur. A 2022 investigation by The Stanford Daily, Stanford University’s student newspaper, uncovered the decade-long ignorance of the sexual misconduct of Professor Vincent Barletta by the university’s administration.
According to their report, the Stanford administration first found that Barletta violated Title IX policy over a decade ago, but not in a manner that enabled his termination. He successfully earned tenure in 2012, after only a slight delay due to his ongoing Title IX case, and he has since faced many new Title IX cases. Despite widespread protest among students and community members, Professor Barletta continues to work and teach as a tenured faculty member at one of the most elite universities in the world.
Granting tenure to faculty can have the unintentional effect of enabling universities to ignore misconduct. Tenure is an important part of higher education that protects professors’ academic freedom, but universities must also enforce their guidelines that allow for the termination of tenured professors in the case of gross legal and ethical violations.
Professors are also able to spread misleading or inaccurate information through their work, especially when their teaching advances their own world view without consideration for the full context or historical background. Over the years, academia has given credibility to many pseudoscientific beliefs. Scientific racism and eugenics were theories popularized in the nineteenth century, rooted in the false perception that research in the fields was based in scientific evidence, and popularized by prominent bad-faith academics.
Back in 1838, a group of scientists and doctors founded the Medical School of Pennsylvania College, the former name of Gettysburg College. The school didn’t exist for long, and it struggled greatly with finances during its brief tenure, but the College’s medical school existed in Philadelphia from 1838 to 1861. Among its founders was Samuel George Morton, a Philadelphia-born biologist, physician and researcher who worked on founding the medical school from 1838 until 1841.
In addition to his brief work for the College, Morton was an early leader in advancing scientific racism. He was an advocate of polygenism, the widely disproved theory that humans of different races did not originate from the same place. This theory has been used by white supremacists as an attempt to legitimize a racial hierarchy.
In 1981, historian Stephen Jay Gould published a book, “The Mismeasure of Man,” in which he investigates scientific racism and the alleged empirical evidence it is based upon. In this, Gould is able to point out systemic flaws in Morton’s methodology. He specifically disproves Morton’s study of human skull sizes, in which he claimed that white people’s brains were larger than black people’s, and therefore they were more intelligent. Gould pointed to selection bias, manipulated data, unconscious bias and systematic analytical error as evidence of Morton’s failures.
The implications of situations similar to Morton and Gould’s in higher education are wide-reaching, especially in the current polarized political climate. Misinformation, especially when targeted against marginalized groups, can have deadly consequences.
So, how can Gettysburg respond to challenges in the classroom in order to improve our academic environment? By protecting academic freedom, encouraging students to express their viewpoints and ensuring that the only consequence of respectful expression of free speech is the possibility of starting a productive conversation to gain insight into a different point of view. However, this must include checks on both student and faculty behavior to ensure engagement in respectful, productive dialogue. Protection of free speech does not equate to protection of hateful speech, which can create a culture of silence on vital issues, especially among targeted groups.
Ignorance breeds hatred, while conversation creates understanding. Students are gaining their most valuable experience when their views are challenged in a way that allows them to learn something new, and through encouraging and protecting free speech, this environment of mutual learning can be maintained.
By remaining respectful, but skeptical, of opposing viewpoints, and protecting targeted groups from unproductive hateful speech or even violence, productive dialogue is possible. It’s up to Gettysburg College, its students and its faculty to continue to craft a healthy academic environment that balances academic freedom and censorship and moves humanity one step closer to understanding the world we call home.
This article originally appeared on pages 20 to 21 of the December 2023 edition of The Gettysburgian’s magazine.