The American Association of University Professors and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education are both organizations with stated commitments to academic freedom and free speech.
But the AAUP chapter at the University of Oklahoma says FIRE erred in its description of a program at Oklahoma where faculty members trained other faculty members on how to make minority students feel comfortable and excel in class. FIRE says the program's speakers showed insensitivity to academic freedom and free speech.
Anti-Racist Rhetoric and Pedagogies was one of nine professional development offerings for faculty who teach first-year composition at Oklahoma. Other sessions dealt with such topics as grading and teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. No faculty member or graduate student was required to attend any of the sessions, the university says.
"Think Black Lives Matter shouldn’t engage in property destruction? We’ll have to 're-adjust' your thinking," says a description of the program on FIRE's website. "If you’re a student at the University of Oklahoma -- congratulations! Your instructor may already have done all of the thinking for you. But beware: Deviating too far from an instructor’s personal opinions can cost you. A recording of an 'Anti-Racist Rhetoric & Pedagogies' workshop acquired by FIRE raises alarm bells about the state of free expression and freedom of conscience at Oklahoma’s flagship university."
The FIRE description says, "One of the workshop leaders, Kelli Pyron Alvarez, explained in the recording how undergraduate students in one of her introductory English courses are 'a little bit more emboldened to be racist.' To combat this, she forbids huge swaths of classroom speech, including 'derogatory remarks, critiques, and hate speech,' as well as 'white supremacist ideas or sources,' unless the student is using those sources to dismantle racism."
The post was written by Daniel Burnett, FIRE's director of communications, and Sabrina Conza, a program analyst at FIRE. It includes a link to the full recording FIRE obtained of the program.
The University of Oklahoma's Belinda Higgs Hyppolite, vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion, responded to the piece with a note that said, "the University of Oklahoma unequivocally values free expression and the diversity of all viewpoints … In no way does OU endorse or condone censorship of its students."
She added that the workshop topics reflect the interests of instructors to "aspects of teaching that are challenging."
But the AAUP at OU went further.
It released a statement that said, in part, "As FIRE well knows, the tradition of academic freedom embodies a different understanding of speech in the classroom than that captured by blanket invocations of the First Amendment. Are all opinions equally valid in a college classroom?"
The AAUP continued, "The assignments are carefully crafted to invite students to write about issues that matter to them. The goal of the assignments is to help students understand how to speak and write to those who think differently from themselves -- to explore multiple sides of an issue and to research how stakeholders of that issue are invested in it. ALL students must explore an issue from multiple sides, whether their initial position is progressive or conservative. This work builds the capacity of students to be engaged citizens."
The association concluded its statement by saying, "The OU AAUP strongly condemns FIRE’s efforts to intimidate these faculty members."
Julie Ann Ward, an associate professor of 20th- and 21st-century Latin American literature at Oklahoma, said the faculty members who presented at the training session were not on the tenure track and that the AAUP felt it was important to stand with them, and to provide "wall-to-wall support" for academic workers.
She said that it was "absurd to say" that students at Oklahoma are being censored, or that the program would encourage censorship of any kind.
Burnett stood by FIRE's criticism of the training.
"The OU AAUP’s characterization of the training is not correct, and we welcome anyone with questions to watch the full video and decide for themselves," he said via email. "FIRE has been reporting on threats to student rights in the same manner for more than two decades, and an OU training that instructs teachers to conduct their classes in the manner described in the video is an obvious threat to student rights."