Faculty Senate passes resolution supporting free speech in wake of trigger warnings debate
The University Faculty Senate weighed in on the debate over trigger warnings earlier this month, giving a mixed verdict: professors should advise students on potentially uncomfortable material, but not let them widely “opt out.”
The body, composed of 25 faculty and two non-voting members of the administration, voted unanimously on Sept. 9 in support of a resolution on freedom of expression in classrooms. A campus-wide statement from Chairman Larry Engel late Friday said the University administration backs the decision. Provost Scott Bass, who sits on the Senate but does not vote, helped draft the resolution.
“[T]he Faculty Senate does not endorse offering ‘trigger warnings’ or otherwise labeling controversial material in such a way that students construe it as an option to ‘opt out’ of engaging with texts or concepts, or otherwise not participating in intellectual inquiries,” the resolution reads.
The Senate suggests professors direct students who may be sensitive to controversial topics in class to University support-service offices.
All undergraduate colleges and schools are represented on the Faculty Senate, in addition to Washington College of Law and the Bender Library. The group takes stances on course curriculum, academic standards, policies that affect students and other issues, according to its by-laws.
“As laws and individual sensitivities may seek to restrict, label, warn, or exclude specific content, the academy must stand firm as a place that is open to diverse ideas and free expression,” the decision reads. “These are standards and principles that American University will not compromise.”
The faculty body and its decisions only serve an advisory role to the administration and professors, Engel said in an interview.
“If...a faculty member feels the need to have trigger warnings, whether verbally in class or in a syllabus, that’s okay,” Engel said.
Student leaders voiced some skepticism toward the resolution Monday, which became widely known only after an email late last Friday that was sent to University addresses.
“Faculty Senate’s decision has not ended the discussion, but it has sent a signal that students will need to step up, as we always do, to define how this campus will remain a safe space for all students,” Undergraduate Senate Speaker Will Mascaro said in a statement to The Eagle.
Student Government President Sasha Gilthorpe campaigned last spring on starting a conversation about placing trigger warnings on course syllabi. She said Monday she doesn’t believe trigger warnings and first amendment rights are mutually exclusive.
“Trigger warnings exist precisely because students do not wish to opt out, but wish to engage in an academic discussion,” Gilthorpe said in a statement. “The request to be told that the discussion will happen isn't censorship.”
The statement adds that SG will release educational material looking into the topic in the coming days.
“It’s my strongest belief this is not a response to a conversation that’s taking place on AU, but to a conversation in The Atlantic,” Gilthorpe said in an interview with The Eagle, referring to a recent cover story in the magazine opposing such warnings.
Engel said the faculty did consider that story when reaching its conclusion.
“If we’re overly sensitive, outside the issue of accommodation, then I fear more and more students won't want to get into that ... place where they might be uncomfortable, but [where] they’re really learning,” Engel said.
Correction: The Faculty Senate consists of 25 faculty members and 2 non-voting administrators, not 26 members total, as this article previously stated.