To teach or not to teach?

So this is interesting:

Naropa University administrators and religious studies professor Don Matthews are at odds about his suspension last week over complaints that he threatened students and refused to speak during classes.

Matthews was placed on paid suspension for the rest of the semester early last week.

He said the suspension was racially motivated and the university didn’t grant him “due process” before suspending him. University officials, however, said Matthews’ actions posed a threat to the Naropa community and warranted immediate action in the form of suspension.

* * * *

Matthews acknowledged that he implemented a silent protest against racial bias on campus during his classes last week. He said he walked around with a piece of paper explaining his protest and answered questions during the last 10 or 15 minutes of his classes to make sure his students understood the materials.

Matthews said he wants students to be able to file complaints at Naropa, however, he sees his situation as unfair because he was not given “due process” to respond to or address the complaints.

Obviously, this issue is a tangled mess of allegations and controversies. I’m not too terribly interested in the legalities of what’s going on here. There are too many unknown variables: his contract language, school policies, Colorado law… the list goes on.

What I find interesting about this is actually a more hypothetical issue dealing with academic freedom. If a school hires a professor or teacher to teach, general principles of academic freedom suggest that the professor shouldn’t be removed or disciplined for pursuing truth, even if it leads in directions some find offensive or controversial.

But what if a professor or teacher is hired to teach, and doesn’t teach? Because that is apparently what happened. You might argue that this was some sort of “teachable moment” and that the professor in question was “teaching” in the sense of advancing some sort of political point — but is that what he was hired to teach?

It’s not at all clear to me that even the most generous principles of academic freedom requires you pay a professor’s salary in such cases.


  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    I suppose it depends on whether this was one “teachable hour” or whether he planned to continue doing it for additional classes. I assume that there was some “teaching” in the written handout and the question answering.

    Of course, it would have been more polite to email the handout to the students and inform them that he would do nothing but take questions about it in the next class. Though I suppose that would have ruined the theatrical aspect of it, which may have been necessary to make it truly “teachable.” And the fact that most of the students would have just stayed away certainly would have been a blow to the professor’s self-esteem (and sense of power).

    • Apparently he planned to stay silent for the rest of the semester, and indeed until racial bias disappeared from campus (that could take a while). It seems to me that such a move puts him in the territory of breach of contract–he’s refusing to do his job.

  2. He should have just said he was a “guide on the side,” and left it at that. Then he could not teach and get away with it.

    Problem solved.

  3. Academic freedom doesn’t seem to be accomplishing what those who argued it was necessary said it would accomplish. Professors don’t worry much about students or the public, but they are intensely cautious to keep the good opinion of peers–quite herdlike behavior–coupled with the sense of entitlement this guy seems to have.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    If I, a student, pay some hugely inflated price for four credits of, say, Reformation theology, I have contracted to get four credits of Reformation theology. I am owed it. I need it for the junior level class for which it is a prerequisite.
    I did not pay a chunk of my parents’ savings, my summer job, or my future debt enslavement in order to watch a professor massage his ego in public.
    If I don’t get my four credits of Reformation theology, the U is in breach of contract and must take action regarding its agent which put it in this position. Or refund my premium.
    Now, I know this is harsh, but it’s the way it works in the rest of the world. Like to apply it to academia.