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OU Faculty Senate addresses concerns of academic freedom amid passage, signing of House Bill 1775

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John Woods

Former OU Government Affairs Executive Director John Woods. Woods was nominated by former OU President James Gallogly to serve as executive director of governmental affairs.  

The OU Faculty Senate discussed what implications the passage of Oklahoma House Bill 1775 may have for academic freedom in its Monday meeting.

In the meeting, faculty members expressed concern the bill would limit what they are allowed to discuss in courses which focus on race and race relations. OU Executive Director of Government Affairs John Woods and Interim Provost Jill Irvine attended the meeting to explain what impact the bill will have in the classroom.

A bill which restricts the teaching of critical race theory in Oklahoma schools, HB 1775 prohibits the teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” or that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciuosly or unconciously.” Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed HB 1775 on May 7.

Woods explained his interpretation is the bill speaks specifically to mandatory training — in OU’s case, the Gateway to Belonging course that was set to be implemented as a required course in the fall 2021 semester.

“I am thoroughly convinced by the comments of the (bill's) author, by our own interpretation of the legislation, (that) it does not speak to instruction and academic freedoms that we absolutely have and should have in the classroom within various courses, but just to that independent administrative training,” Woods said. “That does not mean that we're finished with this conversation. ... We've got to remain to be vigilant.”

Irvine said the current administration’s interpretation of the bill is that it will most impact the “Gateway to Belonging at OU” course, as she said it is mandatory for all incoming freshman and transfer students. The course will be introduced in fall 2021.

In a May 7 email to the OU community, OU President Harroz said the new class will teach critical thinking skills and support students in developing “a true understanding of others, as well as a sense of belonging at OU and beyond.”

“A course like this will benefit more than the individual student. An anticipated outgrowth will be an improvement of our own campus climate. The likely broader impact a course like this can make will be seen in larger society – in the workplaces and communities that our graduates will join,” Harroz wrote in the email. “These benefits speak to the importance of Gateway to Belonging at OU, for our students and their development, for our community and its health, and for society and its future.”

Two additional courses will be offered as a First-Year Experience General Education requirement, Irvine said — Global Perspectives and Engagement, and Ethical Leadership Development.

Irvine said the university intends to stand behind faculty members’ right to select their courses’ curriculum and teaching methods freely.

“We are, of course, really firmly committed to academic freedom, to the ability to choose the curriculum, the pedagogy, the research topics that are at the core of what we do here at the university,” Irvine said. “We want our faculty who are teaching in these areas — and they are many across many different disciplines — to flourish here at this university and to feel like this is a place (where) value their contributions, and where they can teach and be involved in the process of learning freely. We hire them because of their talents, skill and background, (and) training in a variety of perspectives and this is certainly one.” 

Woods said the bill’s terms were “very poorly defined” and “very poorly articulated and incorrect in a lot of areas,” such as the definition of critical race theory.

According to the bill text, teachers, administrators or employees of state colleges may not teach course concepts such as “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” or that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.”

In addition, the bill text states ideas that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race,” and “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex” are other concepts related to race and gender forbidden to be taught, according the legislation.

“It's important for all of us to know that the perception of not just a majority of our Oklahoma legislators, but legislators across the country, (and) a variety of constituency groups across the country ... do not have a fair and accurate understanding of what CRT is or what diversity, equity and inclusion work is and what it really means,” Woods said. “They have ... a very narrow, skewed view. So, I do think there is an obligation to educate, not just our students, but (also) external audiences.”

Irvine said the university’s stance on the bill is intended to support faculty members’ perception of OU as a place they can grow their academic careers without outside interference.

“We have a special obligation, particularly academic leaders, to really make sure we're communicating clearly to our junior faculty this is a place (where) they can flourish (and where) academic freedom is absolutely at the core of what we do, and that the administration is committed to making sure that academic freedom remains the core of what we do,” Irvine said.

Irvine said although she doesn’t believe the legislation targets individual faculty members, the Office of Legal Affairs wants to ensure faculty are protected. 

Later in the meeting, Chair-elect Keri Kornelson and Associate Provost for Academic Technology Aaron Biggs, alongside members of the Teaching Evaluation Working Group, provided updates and walked faculty senators through the new Student Experience Survey, a tool for gathering feedback from students on courses and instructors outside of the standard teaching evaluation.

TEWG said they have recruited 19 departments and units to take part in the pilot test, which they ran between April 27 and May 9. Instructors and students have also participated in the pilot, the group said.

A total of 18,611 individual students in individual courses participated in the pilot, Biggs said.

Biggs said the group had anticipated this number of participants in the pilot at this point as it is “a brand new instrument.” He said individuals may not recognize the new evaluation system as well as the former one, and students not being in the classroom due to remote learning also affected the pilot.

“These numbers are definitely lower than we'd like them, but I do think we have an opportunity to work on getting these rates up to an acceptable level,” Biggs said.

Kornelson said TEWG will be working with other institutions to understand their idea of “helping people learn how to use inclusive and equitable teaching practices.” She said, moving forward, the group intends to continue receiving more feedback, working with the pilot units and scaling out more departments.

The faculty senate also passed a land acknowledgement resolution from the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, which accounts for the adoption of a formal land acknowledgement before all senate meetings. 

Gabriela Tumani is an international student from Brazil. She is majoring in journalism with a minor in international studies and works as a junior news reporter for The Daily.

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