I have been working in this field for a long time now, and I would like to say that nothing surprises me anymore, but today’s release about a college professor denied promotion explicitly because of his outside writings criticizing the university’s student conduct code, affirmative action, and student conduct policies is really something else.Some specifics:
I am not exactly shocked that a public university would engage in viewpoint discrimination against a professor or student for voicing unpopular opinions. Sadly, this happens all too often. Nor am I particularly surprised that a professor was denied a promotion because of his political point of view—I receive frequent reports of this behavior.
[Stephen] Kershnar, an associate professor of philosophy, was nominated for promotion to full professor in January 2006, with strong support from his colleagues, department head, and top administrators, because of his outstanding professional record. An outspoken member of the Fredonia community, Kershnar writes a bi-weekly column for the local newspaper, in which he questioned Fredonia’s affirmative action practices and examined the lack of conservatives in higher education. In 2005, Kershnar publicly condemned a new rule that targets students who fail to report violations of the student conduct code. He was quoted in a Buffalo News article saying the new policy would “turn the student population into a group of snitches.”There is more, and less, to this case than meets the eye. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sees an unprecedented crushing of dissent. Perhaps so.
SUNY Fredonia President Dennis L. Hefner issued a letter to the university community defending the conduct policy against “media misrepresentations.” Kershnar e-mailed the SUNY Fredonia faculty e-mail list on the following day to say that he had criticized—not misrepresented—the policy. Hefner replied to that e-mail by warning Kershnar, “You need to start acting like a responsible member of this campus community.”
“President Hefner made Kershnar’s academic promotion—which should by all accounts be based upon his merits as a professor—dependent upon his public statements about the university,” Lukianoff stated. “FIRE, along with others who care about academic freedom, will not stand idly by as a public university punishes a professor for speaking his mind and then requires him to relinquish his constitutional and moral right to express his opinions.”But the promotion-denial letter is instructive. Professor Kershnar was put up for early promotion, which usually means associate-to-professor in fewer than seven years. President Hefner vetoes the promotion on grounds of uncollegiality. "One item listed as a positive in your submission, membership on the Student Judicial Board, was actually a negative, as you were disruptive and a non-helpful participant. Requests were made that you not be reappointed." So at Fredonia Elementary, "plays well with others" is more important than effective teaching and scholarship?
On April 27, Hefner sent Kershnar a letter denying his promotion. Hefner explained that although Kershnar’s “teaching has been described as excellent,” he would not be promoted because of his “deliberate and repeated misrepresentations of campus policies and procedures…to the media,” which Hefner claimed “impugned the reputation of SUNY Fredonia.”