Wisconsin university panel endorses free speech

11 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Proposed expansion of UW Extension’s mission draws critics.

A University of Wisconsin System regents committee unanimously approved a resolution Thursday affirming a commitment to free speech, following the lead of schools around the country that have faced protests over racial tensions and other social issues. African-American students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and their allies plan to protest against what they call “institutional harm against students of color” as the UW System Board of Regents meets Friday in Madison. The regents’ Education Committee approved the resolution after Chairman Gerald Whitburn recounted how he picketed George Wallace when the Alabama governor known for his segregationist polices appeared at UW-Oshkosh and how he watched protesters march in Madison when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. “There is a ripple in the air today suggesting it is a good and appropriate thing to reiterate and reaffirm our strong commitment to … these principles and values,” Whitburn said. A Facebook invitation from #BlackOut calls on UW-Madison students, faculty and staff, and members of the community to wear black and rally at 10:20 a.m.

The proposed expansion of UW Extension’s mission would include awarding certificates, associate degrees, baccalaureate degrees, and master’s degrees in business, technology, health care and education. UW’s resolution states that ideas on a university campus will naturally conflict but a school shouldn’t shield people from remarks or concepts they might find offensive. “Although the university greatly values civility, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members within the university community,” the resolution states.

It also would add research to the mission, though UW Extension officials have said that doesn’t mean they will eliminate continuing education and county extension offices. “Many of the concerns about the proposed mission statement revision have not been adequately addressed,” Noel Radomski, director and associate researcher for the Wisconsin Center of the Advancement of Postsecondary Education at UW-Madison, said in a WISCAPE blog post Thursday morning. UW System and UW Extension leadership “ignored and/or dismissed advice, warnings, and opposition from a majority of chancellors from the UW’s regional and doctoral universities,” Radomski said.

In Columbia, Missouri, protesters angry over racial incidents on campus forced University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe to resign last month. The Facebook message mentions the handling of a Halloween blackface incident involving a UW-Stout student, the university’s purchase of goods produced by the Badger State Industries manufacturing program in state prisons, and restructuring of a UW-Madison office overseeing diversity and equity.

An assistant professor aligned with protesters blocked a student photographer from the protesters’ tent city and university police told students to report any hateful or hurtful speech they experienced, leaving the impression any comment considered offensive could be prosecuted as a crime. Friday’s protest at UW-Madison will take place as regents consider a statement on freedom of expression on campus that reaffirms a long-stated commitment to freedom of expression, and also sets limits on responses to offensive speech. As black students at campuses across the country have protested against racially hostile climates, clashes over the limits of free speech have mounted. The upshot of the mission expansion is that UW Extension wants to grow a niche of serving some of the 800,000 Wisconsin residents who have some college credit but no degree. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank drew criticism on free speech grounds for an email message after the Dec. 12 Black Out rally that cautioned that no one is entitled to express their beliefs “in ways that diminish others, or that devalues the presence of anyone that is part of our Badger community.” Blank told member of the UW-Madison Faculty Senate Monday that she hopes discussions on conversations on racial inclusion and free speech on campus move forward together. “From my point of view, respect for diversity, listening to multiple voices, and being diverse and inclusive on campus is not and should never be antithetical to principles of free speech,” Blank said. “I hope those conversations can coexist and can move together rather than be seen as in conflict with each other.” Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com.

UW Extension currently administers the Flex Option program, but content and academic oversight for degrees are exclusively provided by the UW System’s four-year and two-year campuses, which then grant the degrees. But three UW-Madison professors — Donald Downs, John Sharpless and Mary Andersen — wrote a column on Nov. 30 saying Blank’s remarks could inhibit the free exchange of ideas on campus and run contrary to First Amendment protections.

They acknowledged that Blank was trying to head off racial confrontations like Missouri but said the “clash of ideas constitutes the heart and soul of what a university is.” The resolution doesn’t guarantee complete freedom of speech. In a July email to Sandeen copied to the other chancellors, UW-Stout Chancellor Bob Meyer wrote that he had told UW System President Ray Cross in May that the campus was interested in offering its four-year degree completion program in Management collaboratively with UW Extension/UW Colleges.

He said the provision could be interpreted to mean no one can interfere with someone’s speech but acknowledged it also could be construed as prohibiting criticism of the university. He said he wished the language had been clearer, but insisted it still protects free speech rights and will encourage an “intellectually honest” campus environment. UWM’s Mone said the proposed degree-granting authority for UW Extension was too broad and would create competitive pressures and duplication among campuses. Mone also questioned the need for adding a research mission to UW-Extension. “Resources are already stretched thin to support two research institution,” he wrote.

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