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Controversial university dismissal sparks faculty discourse on academic freedom

February 3, 2023

On Monday, Bowdoin faculty members gathered in Daggett Lounge for their first meeting of the semester, which covered academic freedom and ChatGPT, among other topics. The meeting, which was moderated by Associate Professor of Government Jeffrey Selinger, also continued prior discussions about the College’s transition to Workday and a new faculty meeting time.

In his report to the faculty, President Rose reiterated his support for academic freedom by addressing the controversial dismissal of an adjunct art history professor at Hamline University. The professor’s dismissal came after she showed a 14th century image of the Prophet Mohammed during an online lecture, a move which sparked criticism based on many Muslims’ belief that visual representations of Mohammed should not be viewed. Rose condemned the actions of Hamline’s administration.

“A great college or university is a place where we put ideas that we disagree with, that we find uncomfortable, that we may find offensive on the table and engage with them,” Rose said. “[The incident at Hamline] is a deep violation of academic freedom, of faculty agency and of the responsibility that administrators have to have the backs of their faculty.… So I’ll say that we have [Bowdoin faculty’s] backs. Make your classrooms and your engagement with students as rich and robust, as engaging as you can, push them, test them and bring those ideas into the classroom.”

Striking a similar note, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Jennifer Scanlon echoed Rose’s appreciation to Bowdoin faculty for their commitment to engaging students in sensitive topics. Continuing the discussion of the Hamline case, Scanlon highlighted the pitfalls of the “adjunctification” of higher education, arguing that the example of Hamline illustrates the trend of diminishing rights of both adjunct and non-adjunct faculty members. A consequence of this adjunctification and commodification of higher education, Scanlon noted, is the transformation of students into customers in the eyes of administrators, altering the nature of classroom engagement.

Monday’s meeting addressed another topical concern: the role of artificial intelligence (AI) programs—namely ChatGPT—in teaching and learning. Rose acknowledged the uncertainty around AI’s burgeoning presence in higher education, but remarked that technological change is by no means a new phenomenon. Regardless, he spoke to many student anxieties around AI’s growing influence.

“What’s been interesting to me is that [students] have not been focused on the issue of using [AI] in class either in a legitimate and valid fashion that you allow or an illegitimate fashion, but rather about the future of work and what it may mean for them,” Rose said.

Faculty members will continue the conversation about the role of AI in higher education at an upcoming Faculty Forum.

The meeting then shifted focus to the question of determining a new faculty meeting time, a topic that has remained of concern for multiple meetings. The present faculty meeting time, which takes place once monthly on Mondays at 4:25 p.m., has posed a problem for faculty members with familial obligations or other commitments, rendering faculty-wide meetings inaccessible to many.

Through an online vote, faculty members opted to switch the meeting time to Fridays at 2:20 p.m. The change will take place beginning in the 2023–2024 academic year.

Finally, the meeting included an update on the College’s transition to Workday from Professor of History and Associate Dean for Curriculum Dallas Denery, who reported that the ad hoc committee would be meeting with each academic department to ease the transition. Rose also spoke to the importance of the College’s switch to Workday, noting that the new technology is necessary to ensure that Bowdoin’s digital infrastructure remains up-to-date. Rose commended Denery and the ad hoc committee for their work in guiding the College’s transition.

The next faculty meeting will be held on March 6, 2023, in Daggett Lounge.


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