By Charles Hallman
Some believe that the administrative decision surrounding a Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) English professor who received a reprimand last year may have “far-reaching ramifications” for academic freedom.
Shannon Gibney was reprimanded by MCTC last fall after students in her Mass Communications class formally complained to officials that she “offended them” during a discussion on racism. In a letter sent to all
Minnesota State College Faculty (MSCF) members dated January 21, Liberal Arts Vice-President Damon Kapke wrote, “The MSCF is deeply concerned” after Gibney’s appeal was denied by the MnSCU System Office.
Gibney is Black, and reportedly the students who charged her with discrimination were White.
Kapke continued, “The actions taken against Ms. Gibney by her administration undermine the time-honored concept of academic freedom, the right of faculty to teach within their subject areas in an atmosphere of free intellectual inquiry without undue pressure from their administrations or outside groups that might find the lessons counter to their interests.
“The MSCF stands with Shannon Gibney and all faculty members who courageously teach about relevant, controversial issues within their subject areas,” said Kapke, who also is chair of the MSCF racial equity and diversity committee. Kapke did not respond to an MSR request for further comment.
MCTC Diversity Officer Whitney Harris also was contacted. He asked us to submit our request in writing, which we did, but at press time he has not yet responded. When asked for comment, Gibney referred our requests to her faculty union president Barbara Hager, who talked to the MSR at our offices.
“Shannon is not the focus of what’s going on,” said Hager, an MCTC scripture professor. Rather, she pointed to the issue of academic freedom as the central issue insofar as some teachers at the school fear that the Gibney decision was in fact “de facto censorship.”
“[Some] faculty don’t want to speak out… They want to keep their heads down, come to work, do their job and go back home,” said Hager.
Hager added that she and other MCTC faculty have asked school administrators for specific data on past student complaints filed against teachers: “How many of these faculty were women of color? How many [are] faculty of color? How many of the students [who filed complaints] are of color and how many are White students who are making those complaints? How are those complaints handled, investigated or dropped?
“The college doesn’t keep that data,” reported Hager.
Furthermore, she believes the current atmosphere at MCTC is not good for either faculty or students. “I can’t speak for the whole student body, but I can talk about my students — they are very concerned,” Hager said.
What happened to Gibney “made us all a little bit more hesitant” in teaching their classes, “and that’s the biggest problem here,” stated the professor.
“Because of this case, the atmosphere on campus as a safe space for faculty of color, and for women faculty as well, and White women faculty, there’s no safety net, no thought that the administration is going to have your back and support you.”
She added that the MCTC faculty in 2012 approved a no-confidence vote for school President Phil Davis. Faculty members “don’t trust” him: “It would be really helpful as we move forward [that] he step down, or the board of directors remove him, or the [MnSCU] chancellor remove him,” stated Hager.
It appears that MCTC faculty and students now aren’t comfortable speaking in class without fear of retaliation or reprimand, she said. “[Students] being able to have an honest discourse with the faculty is hard, and even harder with the administration. The administration has set up a system where things are taken personally.”
“We are committed to creating an atmosphere of free intellectual inquiry in our classrooms,” wrote Kapke.
Finally, according to Hager, MCTC officials have talked about making cuts in next year’s budget, hinting that the Gibney issue might be used to lay off faculty. “I ask [the school administration] — are you balancing the budget on the backs of the faculty?”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.