Students and Faculty Debate Disciplinary Changes for Disruptive Actions

The Council of the University Senate, a body made up of 51 elected members of faculty, is set to vote on whether or not to adopt the Committee’s recommendations on May 23.

By Alex Ward

Students and faculty debated the Picker Committee’s recent recommendations to update the University’s system of discipline for disruptive actions at a forum on Thursday. 

The Council of the University Senate, a body made up of 51 elected members of faculty, is set to vote on whether or not to adopt the Committee’s recommendations on May 23.  

The most recent version of the Committee’s recommendations includes suggestions to redefine disruptive conduct to include actions by individuals not part of the University community, and to potentially consider multiple unrelated incidents in determining the substantiality of an individual’s disruptive conduct. The recommendations also suggest the creation of a central discipline system for cases of disruptive conduct, and that individuals involved in this system be prohibited from speaking publicly about the details of their cases. If the recommendations are adopted, the University will institute programs to educate students about free speech policies and responsibilities and will authorize special free-speech deans-on-call to remove disruptive individuals without having to wait for approval from the administration. 

The Committee’s recommendations are currently being revised, so their final wording isn’t clear, but Randal Picker, the Committee chair, said that he expects the revised recommendations to be delivered to the Committee of the Council by 5 p.m. on Friday. Picker is also spokesperson of the Committee of the Council, which determines the agenda for Council meetings and communicates directly to the president and provost.

According to Picker, the revised recommendations will include the re-addition of the presumption of student innocence included in the previous 1970 System’s guidelines. Picker said the Committee will also recommend that the faculty members of the committee that judges disruptive conduct cases be chosen randomly from the last three years of Council members, rather than from a pool appointed by the provost as originally proposed. According to the most recent language of the recommendations, three of the members of the committee that judges cases will be faculty, one will be a student, and one will be a staff member.

If the Council votes not to adopt the recommendations, the University will continue operating under the 1970 All-University Disciplinary System for Disruptive Conduct. According to the Picker report, the 1970 System has not been invoked since 1974. 

The disagreement between Committee members and the other panelists centered on whether the vote should take place without more time for discussion. Panelists not on the Committee and several members of the audience said that the recommendations should be given further consideration because of the current political climate and references to the 2015 Stone Report in several recent state laws mandating that Universities adopt free speech policies. 

Picker and Christopher Wild, the other member of the Committee on the panel, responded that they felt they had adequately worked to solicit community feedback over the 11 months since the Committee was appointed and noted that neither the Stone report nor the Committee’s early meeting had prompted significant debate or opposition. “It may not have worked out that way, and people might not have heard about it, but we also felt that it was an open and transparent process,” Wild said.  

Panel members from UofC Resists, a coalition originally formed to oppose the Trump administration and the increasing climate of bigotry it believes Trump’s election emboldened, said they were worried the Committee’s recommendations were part of a broader crackdown against campus protests. Everett Pelzman, a second-year and member of UofC Resists, described UChicago’s legacy of influential protests. Alejandra Azuero, a Ph.D. student and member of UofC Resists, said that it presents a false choice to say that the University must choose between either the 1970 System or the changes suggested by the Picker Committee’s recommendations. Azuero suggested that the University instead implement a new, more open and transparent process to determine better solutions. 

Anton Ford, an assistant professor of philosophy, said that the University seemed to be positioning itself nationally as a vanguard of free speech at the expense of academic freedom, as both the recommendations and the Stone report seem not to focus on defending the free expression of students and faculty, but of invited speakers and other visitors to campus. According to Ford, “It’s about freedom of expression, but the freedom of expression that it’s about is not ours.” 

Ford brought up a recent case in which a Maroon reporter had asked an assistant professor about the free speech debate and the professor had declined to speak on the record for fear of reprisal from the administration. “Untenured professors at this university are afraid to speak their minds on the record about freedom of speech, the topic of this panel. Forget about them participating in disruptive protest or un-disruptive protest. They’re afraid to say what they think.” 

Ken Warren, one of the panelists and a member of the committee that drafted the Stone report, said that he is uncomfortable with the recent campaign by organizations like the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education (FIRE) to use the report’s principles as guidelines for state legislation. Referencing an article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in March, Warren drew a distinction between freedom of speech, which has no requirements or responsibilities associated with it, and freedom of inquiry, which is one of the University’s fundamental values and requires a dedication to accuracy over the ability to speak indiscriminately. “Freedom of inquiry is actually a principle that requires commitment to the wave of evidence, which is exercised by University committees and faculty operating as a community of scholars,” Warren said.

During the Q&A, which became heated at several moments as audience members argued with Picker and Wild, multiple audience members argued that the University should take time to consider the responsibility it holds as a focus of national attention over campus free speech. Justifying the argument that the University should solicit more community feedback, one audience member noted that the Committee had only met with four undergraduates and only one graduate student. Referring to other campuses where students have recently protested against invited speakers, Wild said, “All eyes are going to be on us if something like Berkeley or Middlebury happens, and we should have a set of rules in place if we have a breakdown of our culture of free expression and inquiry.”