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OU AAUP rejects portrayal of anti-racist faculty workshop by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

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Michael Givel

Michael Givel, political science professor and president of OU's AAUP chapter, speaks during an AAUP panel on the university COVID-19 dashboard. 

The OU American Association of University Professors released a statement July 6 in response to an article by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on an OU professor’s remarks during an April faculty workshop that ignited strong opposition toward two untenured professors.

The “Anti-Racist Rhetoric & Pedagogies” workshop occurred over two months ago, but the effects of what was said are still a heated topic of conversation. F.I.R.E’s article focused on statements by Kelli Pyron Alvarez and Kasey Woody, who are professors in the College of Arts and Sciences’ First-Year Composition program.

F.I.R.E’s article said the university training is teaching professors to “censor” and “indoctrinate students,” but the OU AAUP publicly rejects these remarks. It said Alvarez “forbids huge swaths of classroom speech,” citing her statement of “derogatory remarks, critiques and hate speech (and) white supremacist ideas or sources” as forbidden classroom speech.

The article was written by F.I.R.E’s Director of Communications and University of Georgia graduate, Daniel Burnett, and F.I.R.E’s program analyst and University of Florida graduate, Sabrina Conza. The OU AAUP chapter said in a press release it rejects the article’s characterization of the workshop.

The instructors of the “Anti-Racist Rhetoric & Pedagogies” workshop speak from the perspective of democratic pedagogy and are backed by the tradition of academic freedom,” the association said in the release.

Julie Ward, the OU AAUP vice president and a modern language professor, said although she isn’t sure what F.I.R.E’s intentions were behind its remarks, the effects of the article’s words are real and "leave faculty members vulnerable.”

“It’s really important to note the instructors whose names and photographs have been plastered on national media and who have been receiving a deluge of hate mail are instructors who do not have tenure, so they’re the most vulnerable employees of the instructors,” Ward said.

In terms of the First Amendment, Ward said free speech and academic freedom are different. Ward referred to Joan Scott, a Princeton professor emerita in the School of Social Science in the Institute for Advanced Study, for her interpretation of free speech in classroom conversations.

“Speech inside the classroom is different than freedom of speech,” Ward said. “It isn’t suppressing someone’s free speech if they are being disruptive or making it impossible for other students to learn.”

The OU AAUP said it rejects a “simplistic binary” of information being diluted to questions and two sides when there are more critical ways to interpret complex dialogues. Ward said she understands the need for professors to understand how to discuss racism in the classroom based on current racial structures at a time when social justice movements are opening a platform for racially influenced dialogue.

“We live in a society that is built on many racist structures, and that includes the university, and instructors, faculty, staff and students seeking to make changes to those racist structures have the right to find more techniques for making OU a welcoming place for everyone,” Ward said.

Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion Belinda Higgs Hyppolite emailed a statement to The Daily on behalf of the university, saying OU unequivocally values free expression and the diversity of all viewpoints. She said the workshop in question is one of many programs the university’s composition puts on and participation in them is voluntary. 

“The workshop topics were selected in response to aspects of teaching that are challenging,” Higgs Hyppolite said in the statement. “The curriculum of the workshop is designed to address how instructors respond to and handle racist comments within the classroom environment.” 

Higgs Hyppolite said in the statement that the university will always protect student's right to free speech and expression. 

“In no way does OU endorse or condone censorship of its students,” Higgs Hyppolite said in the statement. “OU is a place where students are taught how to learn, not what to learn. Every effort is made to ensure students feel that they belong.” 

Ward said she doesn’t intend to assume the intentions of the F.I.R.E article’s authors, but she does hope for the community to think about how professors who aren’t tenured are treated. Ward listed job security, wage gaps and fair and transparent tenure paths as ways the OU community can support its' non-tenured faculty.

“They make much less money than the national standard for their profession and now they are the target of a national harassment campaign,” Ward said. “It makes me feel disheartened that rather than engaging in a real dialogue, groups like this would choose to uphold freedom of speech — which is such an essential in our country — and they’re using it in such a disingenuous way to frighten people and intimidate professors.”

The Daily reached out to Alvarez for a statement in the morning of July 7. 

This article was updated at 4:30 p.m. to correct the misspelling of the word "disingenuous." 

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