A Query For UH Prez Candidates

UH prof Oliver Lee leads a demonstration in Waikiki in 1980 | ‘Honolulu Star-Advertiser’ photo

One question I’d like to ask any prospective UH president is, “What would your policy be on free speech, even politically incorrect speech, by faculty and students on and off campus?”

That’s no small question. Campus and off-campus speech is under attack across the country, especially at schools getting federal funds, and therefore subject to the whims of an education secretary, the Congress or a president.

It’s very serious. Last year, UCLA research professor James Enstrom was terminated for claiming others at the school used junk environmental science to impose new environmental regulations on California businesses. He was accused of speech that disrupted the workplace.

Many of you remember professor Oliver Lee’s temporary firing at UH. The school said he was a bad teacher, but the faculty members (some of whom agreed with that) argued that he was being punished for pro-communist or anti-Vietnam War remarks. UH recanted and Lee served until retirement.

Two years ago, veteran University of Denver professor Arthur Gilbert was suspended for sexual harassment because his class on sexual taboos in America was deemed too racy for the class’s females.

During a faculty training session in 2009, Professor Thomas Thibeault argued that East Georgia College’s sexual harassment policy didn’t offer protection against false or malicious accusations. Thibeault was ordered to resign. He refused and was escorted from campus by police.

Not all cases of campus firings are strictly First Amendment issues. It can get complicated.

Lots of people feel that University of Colorado Boulder ethnic studies professor Ward Churchill was fired because of his essay suggesting we deserved the 9/11 attacks because of our national policies … what he called “the chickens coming home to roost.”

But the eventual court hearing disclosed that he was guilty of plagiarism and had falsely claimed to be an American Indian in his hiring application. I guess we’ll always wonder if he’d have been so minutely investigated had he not written his inflammatory essay, and that’s something to be explored, too, as we look at free speech at the UH.

Some of the new federal standards for universities getting federal money also seem to lower the bar on evidence of sexual harassment both on and off campus. Some writers have warned that a professor asking a student for a date off campus could result in a successful sexual harassment charge.

And the new federal guidelines say conviction should only require “the preponderance of evidence” and not the “clear and convincing evidence” most universities have used in those cases of he says/she says.

Then there’s the Tufts University case where the student publication was found guilty of “hate” for criticizing Islam.

I know we’re trying to stem hateful, harassing behavior, but universities should be places of unrestricted conversation.

We must be very careful what we restrict.

That’s why my question should be put to all prospective UH presidents.