On May 9, the faculty of William Jewell College voted to adopt a resolution which tasked members of the Faculty Council committee to investigate claims concerning academic freedom violations raised by members of the Slavery, Memory and Justice Project (SMJP). The SMJP is a group of faculty, alumni and 25 students who have conducted extensive research in the history of slavery’s influence on the College since August 2020.
The SMJP claimed that actions taken by the College undermined students’ and faculty’s academic freedom — understood as the freedom to conduct research and publish findings without the administration’s interference or attempted interference. Further, the SMJP claimed that the College gave preferential treatment in terms of academic freedom to its own investigative council: the Racial Reconciliation Commission (RRC). The RRC was established in April 2021 by Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, president of the College. Its purpose is to “[find] and [express] both an historical and moral truth about the racial history of William Jewell College spanning the years of our founding until today.”
On Nov. 18, 2022, a general version of the faculty council’s executive summary of the report was released to faculty. The summary reports on whether the academic freedom of the SMJP was jeopardized in this context. On Nov. 19, an e-mail signed by MacLeod Walls, president of the College, and by Gary Armstrong, interim vice president of academic affairs, was sent to the faculty in response to this executive summary. Further, on Nov. 30, a more specific version of faculty council’s report was released to faculty department chairs and program leaders. The general executive summary, the administration’s response to the summary, and the more specific report will not be released to the student body for reasons of confidentiality and protection of personnel privacy.
With the purpose of sharing these reports with the broader student body, The Hilltop Monitor reached out to administration for a copy of the executive summary and the subsequent e-mail. The Hilltop Monitor’s request for access to these documents, redacted or otherwise, was denied. Though it is important to safeguard confidentiality and the privacy of College personnel, the administration’s refusal to provide an appropriately redacted version of the report and official communication about the report constitutes a violation of the Student Handbook. The administration commits itself to the protection of academic freedom, but their failure to provide crucial information about an investigation that was at least partly constituted by student rights and interests contravenes the College’s commitments.
According to the handbook, the faculty and the College have a joint responsibility to safeguard student academic freedom: for the “affirmation of academic freedom of students should be accepted as a reciprocal understanding by each individual student and among groups of students and the faculty and administration” (emphasis added).
The handbook goes on to describe the scope of academic freedom, constructed under this reciprocal understanding amongst students, faculty and administration.
First: students have a right to freedom of expression in the classroom without fear of retaliation from faculty.
But further, the handbook tasks students with the responsibility of “owning” their curricular experience at Jewell: “While it’s every student’s goal to earn a degree from William Jewell College, Jewell students experience invaluable learning outside the classroom. Students are expected to ‘own’ their co-curricular education which only occurs through immersion in and engaging the Jewell community” (emphasis added).
For students to be able to live up to the responsibility, the College must work “to provide and maintain an academic climate which is conducive to learning.” The executive summary of the report – in addressing student interests and rights with respect to academic freedom – has an impact on the kind of immersion and engagement students have with the Jewell community. Additionally, a determination on student academic freedom, as made in the report, shapes the academic climate that students learn in.
To support students’ responsibility to “own” their co-curricular education, the College should give students access to the executive summary. The handbook tasks the College with just this responsibility: “Students have the right to the best education possible and the responsibility to be active co-creators in their learning. Students have the right to ready access to academic information, ideas, and material promoting their learning” (emphasis added).
The handbook also stipulates that: “Students have the right to access to College administration. The College Administration will seek to foster lines of communication with students, consulting student opinion and representation prior to major changes in college policy, especially changes directly affecting students. Students will seek active and responsible participation in such changes. Implementation of such changes shall be publicly announced before going into effect.”
A determination of student academic freedom is just the sort of thing which directly affects students. According to the handbook, the administration has a responsibility to share relevant information about such crucial determinations with the student body, but no official communication about faculty council’s investigation has been shared with the student body.
It is the case that administration often communicates – whether in e-mails, reports, or meetings – with faculty without the student body’s input. However, in this particular situation, where there is student unrest concerning the matter of academic freedom, continued communication without the inclusion of the student body breaks down institutional trust.
If the concern about releasing the executive summary of the report is a concern about confidentiality, then the report should be appropriately redacted, as per legal counsel’s advice. If the concern about sharing an e-mail response with the student body is about a potential breach in the privacy of personnel, the relevant personnel should be asked whether they think it would be beneficial to share the response with the student body. If the relevant personnel express concerns about their own privacy, then it is legitimate to not broadly disseminate the e-mail response.
To fulfill their commitments to academic freedom, the College should find a way to mediate confidentiality and privacy concerns and the rights and interests of students. Foreclosing materials to the student body that are relevant to an understanding of the academic environment denigrates the quality of education and undermines trust in the administration.