A periodic update for faculty from President Robert H. "Doc" Foglesong
February 28, 2008
Academic freedom and responsible behavior
How about a little straight talk to clear the air about my stance on academic freedom? In particular, let's review the circumstances surrounding accusations that have appeared in print and on web networking sites that I—or this university—have somehow impeded learning in one of our departments. Here's the straight talk.
This actually started last May, when I received numerous comments from alums and friends of the university about the front and back of one of our buildings located at a prominent intersection on campus. Particularly noticeable was the paint on sidewalks and entry areas from the overspray of objects placed on those surfaces, clutter on windows and at entryways, and what appeared to be spray paint on windows. Our physical plant personnel removed the overspray—at some cost—and we asked that the clutter be removed. No big deal, right? That's why I didn't focus much on these issues initially. Recently, however, a separate group of alums had similar comments, and we discovered that the overspray and clutter cleaned up last spring had reappeared.
"Academic freedom is a fundamental concept at this university, but that doesn't mean freedom from the responsibility to ensure that our graduates leave here understanding what their employers will expect of them in a professional setting."
Combine those episodes with this. In the same building, numerous lights have been left on when no one was around—even during periods of extended vacations—in spite of a committed effort by the rest of the campus to control our utility expenses. I know our students work varied hours in the area and require lighting, but I can assure you that no one was in the building on the occasions when I personally checked following calls from various individuals. In fact, hardly anyone was even on campus during some of these periods. I'm pretty sure the provost got tired of my calling to have someone come in to turn off the lights to match the effort by the rest of the campus.
Nobody spray paints the sidewalks at their home. Nobody clutters the front and back of their home. Nobody leaves the lights on when no one is home. We shouldn't permit our students to leave here and enter the workforce believing that treating our campus the way no one would treat their home is responsible behavior. We want them to be successful, not get fired. Those are the factors that brought this area under review, although I was also sorry to see people smoking on the balcony, since our tobacco-free campus policy prohibits smoking within 25 feet of a building.
The issue of clutter at the back of the building—which is related to the recent discussions about academic freedom—involved a viewing area where shadowboxes built by our students were being displayed next to very large windows visible from the street. For several months, I thought the area was under renovation and ignored the materials obstructing the windows. It turns out that what passersby saw were the backs of the shadow boxes and not construction, as I had thought.
Our provost advised me that the windows were uncovered to permit light to enter and help display the shadowboxes. That sounded reasonable to me. My only request at that point was to consider installing blinds or using some other method to screen the appearance of clutter when the shadowboxes were not being used by students or faculty in an active learning circumstance—not unlike what we do in other offices and labs across the campus.
A simple system of a pull-down shade was suggested to permit full lighting when up and full screening when down—much as we do in our homes every day. That should have sufficed to curtail the complaints I was receiving about clutter, without interfering with our students' shadowbox construction projects. And folks, that was the last input I made. Not to remove the shadow boxes, not to impede the light during periods of student learning, but to find a way to balance learning with appropriate campus appearance in a reasonable way. But, let me be clear. I support the decisions made by the college leadership. Leave the shadow boxes where are are or move them—whatever makes sense. But I also support screening that area when it's not being used. So there you have it.
I also continue to believe that keeping the spray paint off our sidewalks and entry areas, conserving energy, and policing up the clutter around buildings are procedures that should be followed by everyone, whatever their department or organization. And I believe that many of us—not just me—should be reinforcing this message to our students and other teammates.
Academic freedom is a fundamental concept at this university, but that doesn't mean freedom from the responsibility to ensure that our graduates leave here understanding what their employers will expect of them in a professional setting—things like taking care of the employer's property, workplace appearance, and resources. I hope we can reach the balance I have proposed in this instance in a way that permits learning in combination with reasonable responsibility.
History professor and director of African-American Studies Stephen Middleton has been elected to a five-year term on the National Association of African-American Studies and Affiliates board of directors. Dr. Middleton also was recognized at the February meeting of the Board of Trustees as MSU's nominee for the Black History Month Educator of the Year Award.
Associate provost and biological engineering professor Jerry Gilbert is among the inaugural class of Fellows of the Institute of Biological Engineering. Dr. Gilbert will be honored at the IBE's March 8 meeting in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Finance and economics department head Paul Grimes is president-elect of the National Association of Economic Education. As president-elect, he will help organize the annual conference in Biloxi in October and assume the NAEE's top job in 2009.
Associate vice president for research Sandra Harpole is joining the board of directors of the Coalition of EPSCoR/IDeA. The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research promotes NSF funding for research and development in areas that historically have received smaller amounts of support. The Institutional Development Award works to broaden the distribution of the National Institutes of Health research funding.
Forestry professor Ian A. Munn is a new fellow of the Society of American Foresters. He was cited particularly for contributions to forest resource economics and management, including assistance to the State Tax Commission in developing training and research.