A recent Fox News article criticizing views expressed by college professors during the Oct. 7 vice presidential debate featured a Twitter post from Lehigh sociology associate professor Sirry Alang that was critical of Vice President Mike Pence.
Faculty Senate sent out an email to the Lehigh community on Oct. 23 in response to the story. In the email, it condemned the “racist, threatening and hateful” attacks against Alang.
The email said public support of Alang is important because of administrative commitments to making Lehigh an actively anti-racist instituition.
Alang did not return a request for comment.
According to Lehigh’s “Mission, Vision and Values,” Lehigh affirms academic freedom within the community and upholds its commitment to the highest standards of respect, civility, courtesy and sensitivity toward every individual.
Lehigh professors have standard academic freedoms of free inquiry and dialogue. Jeremy Littau, associate professor of journalism and communication, said there needs to be a distinction in the policy between faculty and staff because the two groups have different protections as it stands now.
Faculty are protected under academic freedom, which means there’s a tradition of free inquiry, uninhibited by institutional pressures, Littau said.
“The university as an administration might not like something that somebody says, but they affirm the right because a culture of free inquiry and academic freedom encourages dialogue like that,” Littau said.
The crux of the issue occurs when people assume professors are speaking for the university instead of speaking as an individual. Professors’ posts on social media channels can sometimes be misconstrued even if it is clear the individual is speaking for themselves.
Littau said the university affirms the right of academic freedom, but urges staff and faculty to avoid speaking for the university.
“I avoid making statements for the university because it’s always the standard I’ve applied to whatever I do,” Littau said. “It’s a gray area because you can’t control what people interpret.”
Littau said he doesn’t feel limited by the university to express his first amendment rights on his social media channels. However, he said he is aware of the factors that allow him to feel comfortable. Littau said professors who are tenured don’t have to worry as much.
Littau said he does watch what he says, but he recognizes his privilege as a white male to speak up for those who don’t feel as comfortable.
He said it is important, especially in the current political climate, to share one’s opinions and beliefs.
Jennifer Midberry, assistant professor of journalism and communication, said the distinction Lehigh does make is that professors should be posting as individuals and not claiming to speak for Lehigh.
“As with anything with social media, whatever you post is out there for anybody to see and interpret,” Midberry said. “It’s not limited to professors, so, generally speaking, people should be comfortable with what they’re posting.”.
Haiyan Jia, assistant professor of journalism and communication, said it’s important for professors to share their knowledge and stand up for what they believe in as an educator and as a researcher, not only to students, but also to society.
“People can take your 140 words in very different directions, so there’s a risk of being misjudged or misinterpreted with anything you put out on the Internet,” Jia said.
Along with Faculty Senate, the Journalism Department issued a statement in support of Alang and in defense of her right to freedom of speech.