Writing materials

Soka professor unfairly punished for ‘triggering’ students with ‘Writing the Body’ readings gets split decision from faculty committee of just two

In the middle of a controversial last month on whether popular writing professor Aneil Rallin’s gender-related reading assignments were too “trigger” to teach, Soka University of America suggested that its “Adjudication Board of faculty” would look into the matter and come to a just result.

“The university relies on the resolve and recommendations of the faculty in these cases,” a Soka spokesperson said. Inside Higher Education in May after FIRE warned the school not to punish Rallin for classroom instruction clearly protected by academic freedom. “We will await the results of the review and recommendations of the faculty selection committee.”

But only two people from that committee showed up to vote. And they couldn’t agree.

According to Soka’s own policies, there is nothing to investigate.

Now, in a clear affront to fundamental fairness, the tiebreaker falls to acting dean of Soka faculty, Michael Weiner, who first launched the investigation into Rallin’s course content. Weiner will make a recommendation to the president of Soka, who will have the final say.

Any neutral observer can see the lack of integrity in Soka’s roleplaying in due form. While Rallin — three-time “teacher of the year” Soka (who uses the pronouns them/them) — waits to hear their fate, it’s worth pondering why this prank should never have started in first place.

Soka investigates course content that ‘failed to create a safe space’

Rallin was first alerted in April that they were under investigation after students reportedly complained that certain tasks for WRIT 305: “Writing the Body” “triggered” and failed to create a “safe space”.

The reading and viewing materials assigned to Rallin in a course on “Write the body » allegedly made students feel “violated” and were “disturbing”, “triggering”, and “vaguely pedophile”. But as FIRE reminded Soka in a letter from last monthall of Rallin’s course content – ​​including pieces by widely read personalities like Randa Jarrar, Samuel Delaney, Roxane Gay, and Isaac Baley – is protected by Soka’s very strong promises of academic freedom.

The report of the two-member faculty arbitration committee, which addressed concerns about Jarrar’s article, led to a member of the committee finding Rallin “guilty of several of the causes of dismissal from the faculty.” including “actions and behavior that manifest moral turpitude or blatant indifference. to the well-being of others. The faculty member also cited a complaint from a student alleging that Rallin mixed personal values ​​and beliefs into the teaching of the course. The other member, however, concluded that Rallin’s teaching was protected and that letters of support indicated that Rallin provided uncomfortable students with alternative reading material or “trigger warnings” before encountering the material. objectionable.

FIRE again calls on Soka to cease the investigation and publicly reaffirm its commitments to academic freedom.

While there is a great deal of empathy for the three students who appear to have been offended or upset by the material discussed while teaching the course, the allegations made by the Dean of Faculty are not supported by evidence,” said this professor.

But with the committee of the two deadlocked, that dean is now tasked with making the recommendation to Soka’s president on whether to fire Rallin.

And while no faculty committee should be needed to determine whether professors like Rallin have the right to teach controversial subjects (they very clearly do), if such a committee were to be formed, it would have to include more than two people. .

While groups like the AAUP recommend faculty selection committees without suggesting a certain number of members, it goes without saying that a sufficient number, odd number professors representing a representative sample of university researchers should be included.

Close your eyes and choose a point on a map. Any school there, whether public or private, large or small, likely has a large faculty arbitration committee to ensure that a fair verdict is reached in faculty disciplinary matters. For instance:

  • The LSU Faculty Selection Committee has nine members.
  • Stanford Academic Council Advisory Board: Seven.
  • The University of Washington Faculty Selection Committee: A Very Strong Group 21.

You don’t need 21 professors on a panel to have a fair process, and having a large panel alone isn’t enough to guarantee one. But a panel of just two professors is a far cry from what a fair faculty disciplinary committee should look like, given the high stakes, the possibility of a split decision, as seen here, and an insufficient number of opinions to ensure the fairest possible result.

Clearly Protected Teaching Inquiry Is Unwarranted and Inappropriate

We would have a different conversation if both committee members found in favor of Rallin, or if, worse, both found his punishment justified. But that’s a conversation we shouldn’t be having at all. Faculty judgments are a necessary part of disciplinary processes where facts are disputed, but here the facts are clear: under Soka’s own policies, there is nothing to investigate.

In FIRE of May 11 letter in college, we explained that the strong promises of academic freedom Soka makes to his faculty protect Rallin’s right to discuss educationally relevant material in class — even if some students find the material objectionable. These pledges include a statement in the faculty handbook that Soka places “special emphasis” on “values ​​that are essential to its nature as a college community. Among these are freedom of expression and academic freedom.

Soka’s president must uphold the university’s commitments to academic freedom by concluding that Rallin’s use of educationally relevant class materials was protected and did not violate any university policies.

Now, FIRE is once again calling on Soka to end the investigation and publicly reaffirm its commitments to academic freedom. The university cannot reconcile its investigation of Rallin’s educationally relevant course materials with its commitments to faculty to maintain “a community ideally characterized by free speech, free inquiry, intellectual honesty , respect for the dignity of others and openness to constructive change”, as the faculty manual establishes.

“It is sad that the president of Soka has still not spoken publicly about this racist queerphobia and attack on academic freedom at Soka, despite so many students and colleagues who have pleaded with him to cancel this investigation and to defend academic freedom at Soka,” Rallin said, adding that they would not be “silenced” during the investigation.

What makes the situation even more suspicious is the very recent criticism of the university by Rallin in a co-authored article a newspaper article in 2021, arguing that Soka had not sufficiently supported BIPOC students. The proximity of these two events raises concerns that the university will retaliate against Rallin for criticizing the institution.

Soka’s president must uphold the university’s commitments to academic freedom by concluding that Rallin’s use of educationally relevant class materials was protected and did not violate any university policy. To do otherwise would unacceptably chill the discourse of academics interested in engaging students in controversial and sometimes offensive content.