COVID-19 has driven education online, from kindergarten to graduate school, with no clear end in sight. When will students return to classrooms? No one knows.
Universities have already dealt in recent times with significant barriers to freedom of speech. Now the switch to an online format has brought with it further unintended consequences. In a Forbes article — “What Will COVID-19 Mean for Academic Freedom?” — Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, writes:
In many ways, the privacy and intimacy of classroom conversations, existing only in the present and remaining unencumbered by a digital transcript, have become exceptions to the norm. While there exist many mechanisms to restrict and control speech at the traditional university, until recently, a digital record was not one of them.
Will professors and students freely share their opinions and debate in Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings, when they know that others may be audio- or video-recording their answers and these could end up on YouTube or Facebook?
Revised Speech Policies
Poliakoff expresses concerns about politicization, and cites the Charles Koch Foundation’s Charlie Ruger on this point: “Inciting harassment against scholars isn’t just wrong at a time when many are seeking out new ways to engage their students during a crisis, it’s always wrong. Targeting, intimidating, and otherwise attempting to silence academics chills the open exchange of ideas and, in turn, chokes off progress.”
He recommends that universities adopt revised free speech policies that cover virtual environments, like that of Cornell University. Students agree to the following there:
I will respect principles of academic freedom for instructors and classmates and will maintain the privacy of the virtual classroom environment: I will not record, photograph, or share online interactions that involve classmates or any member of the teaching team. I will not enable anyone who is not enrolled in the course to participate in any activity that is associated with the course. Exceptions require the instructor’s written permission.
Impact on the Evolution Debate
I cannot help but wonder what impact these virtual classrooms will have on critics of evolution. Individuals recording video clips of decontextualized information and using it to lambaste a classmate or professor could have horrific career results for that person. As much as speech was chilled before the transition to online education, the problem of feeling restricted in discussing biological origins would seem to be heightened now. This does not bode well for the search for truth.
I hope that during this unprecedented period students and academics will act graciously toward each other as universities scramble to establish structures protecting diversity. May we promote unity by giving each other the benefit of the doubt.
That is my wish, but it doesn’t obviate the need for vigilance. A central mission of the Center for Science & Culture has been and remains to secure academic freedom, the liberty to openly consider vital questions about how life and the cosmos arose, without fear of being silenced or intimidated. Given recent developments in education, our mission has become more urgent than ever.