Academic freedom in the classroom is growing issue among MSU professors

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Jon LeBlanc

MSU professors from left to right, Jenifer Fenton, Amy DeRogatis and Joe Darden, talked about academic freedom at Learn at Lunch event on Feb. 3

At universities, the academic freedom to express thoughts and opinions is one element that makes classrooms safe for students.

But students aren’t the only ones in the classroom expressing opinions.

At a Feb. 3 panel, Michigan State  professors attended a Learn at Lunch panel of their peers, who talked about their academic freedom in the classroom and how they express their opinions on sensitive subjects.

Religious studies professor Amy DeRogatis, said she has more privilege than her colleagues and is grateful for that privilege.

“I think you must use it to support the people who do not, I think that’s your moral responsibility,” DeRogatis said.  “You have to own it.”

DeRogatis said having this privilege shouldn’t make professors watch what they say.

“I think the fear of being labeled a liberal or bias professor should not stop you from exercising that right,” DeRogatis said.  “We owe it to ourselves, our students, but we also owe it to our colleagues, including graduate students who don’t share our privilege.”

To do this however, a professor needs to be able to display evidence to his or her students, to back up their opinions or findings.

“They deserve to know how I derived,” geography professor Joe Durden said.  “I believe in that.”

DeRogatis said she tries to make it clear at the beginning of the semester why she’s teaching a religious studies class at a secular university

“A lot of times, if a controversial issue comes up or something touchy, I put it on myself and I show them… how I might respond or how I think through things within the discipline,” DeRogatis said.

This helps DeRogatis gauge what her student’s knowledge of religious studies are, and if there are any discrepancies between teacher and student to make sure the students are still in a safe discussion.

“When somebody says something like ‘I’m taking this class to test my faith,’ … it allows me to have a conversation with them to say ‘OK, good to know, those aren’t my teaching goals,” DeRogatis said.  “So let’s have a conversation about how that’s going to work in the class.”

“>Even with outside pressures affecting her student’s intentions in her class, DeRogatis said they have the academic freedom to do so.

“I could make that a point of conflict between the two of us … but I don’t because that’s their reason for being there,” DeRogatis said. “But I want to know it and I want them to have the opportunity to think about how that relates to my goals.”

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