Google around long enough, and the teaching of college students can seem like an exercise in avoiding a tripwire.
Last year, Hamline University did not renew an art-history lecturer’s contract after a student complained that the instructor had shown depictions of the Prophet Muhammad during an online class. Knowing such images are offensive to many Muslims, the lecturer tried to offer content warnings, but university leaders still criticized her handling of the incident. Respect for the religious students in the classroom “should have superseded academic freedom,” they said soon after the class. (Hamline leaders later walked back some of their comments.)
The year before, a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s School of Music, Theater, and Dance showed a 1965 film version of Othello, which stars Laurence Olivier in blackface makeup. Students objected to the film and to the professor’s subsequent apology for showing it. After discussion with the dean, the professor stepped down from teaching the class.
And in 2020, a professor of clinical business communication at the University of Southern California was removed from the classroom for teaching a word in Mandarin that can sound like a racist slur. A group of students accused the professor of “negligence and disregard.”
Similar episodes dominate higher-ed headlines, especially in right-wing outlets quick to indict “woke” students. Yet conservative students can also be quick to report on their professors, encouraged in part by websites such as Campus Reform and Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist, which generate content by surveilling professors’ classrooms and social-media posts.
It would appear that professors must cower in fear of offending students — on the left and the right — who are itching to shut them down. But that version of higher ed is a caricature. What’s really happening is more complicated, and so are professors’ feelings about it.
Over the past several decades, and accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the student–professor power dynamic has undergone a sea change.
Traditionally, faculty members have been viewed as the rulers of the classroom. They decide what gets taught and how. That could mean expecting students to tackle tough assignments on tight deadlines and to wrestle with ideas and information that upsets them. The underlying assumption is that students defer to the professor’s judgment (or, as some view it, the professor’s dominance).
But for a confluence of reasons, student attitudes have shifted. For one, what’s considered appropriate for a college professor to say and do in the classroom has changed dramatically, especially around topics of race, gender, and other forms of identity. For another, student deference to their teachers is not nearly as strong as it once was.
Students can be quick to judge a pedagogical choice as harmful, offensive, or superfluous to their education, say some professors, who question if their colleges, which they describe as having adopted a “customer is always right” philosophy, will have their backs if and when the customer is wrong.
In some circumstances, the choices or behavior criticized by students would have been “regarded as benign not very long ago,” said Angus Johnston, a historian of American student-activism who teaches at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York.
While this power shift can be “discombobulating” and “scary” for faculty members, especially older ones, he said, “that does not mean it’s a bad development.”
Who has the right to claim offense? It’s a question Cass Sever often thinks about.
The visiting instructor in sociology at Mount Holyoke College studies what she calls “harm claims,” specifically unfalsifiable ones, like personal experiences of psychic harm or emotional violence. In that field, “we get into all these questions about authority — of who has the right to make the claim and then who has the right to judge whether or not something was truly traumatic,” Sever said.
It’s a complicated knot that she’s had to untangle in her own classroom. Her students, by and large, are “very much harm-claimers,” she said. One student got upset with Sever when she taught The Philadelphia Negro, a foundational sociological study by W.E.B. Du Bois. The student told Sever that she had been “tuned out” during class until she heard the word “Negro.” It distressed her that Sever, who is white, would say that word. The student reported her concern to an administrator before broaching it with Sever.
Some professors say they are “just terrified to teach.”
Sever remembers feeling both bewildered and anxious. “A claim could be made against you at any time without the student even looking to understand the context, and you might not even know that there’s any issue at all before they report it,” she told The Chronicle in an email. “Terrible for anyone to imagine, let alone visiting faculty whose contracts often involve a clause stating that the institution can dissolve them at any time.”
The complaint did not result in any action against Sever. She brought it up in the next class meeting and posed a larger question: If we want to engage with this scholarship, especially because it’s the work of a historical Black scholar, what should we do? What would it mean to avoid certain works altogether? “The student really had to think and realize that they themselves didn’t quite know,” Sever said. “That was a pretty big learning moment.”
Professors concerned about the power shift fear that, by not wanting to engage with certain texts and ideas, students close themselves off to swaths of knowledge, thwarting the basic function of education.
An assistant professor of Islamic studies at a liberal-arts college — who asked to go unnamed because she’s not tenured and fears speaking on the record about these issues — teaches a unit on same-sex desire in Islam. When she discusses the work of Michel Foucault, because many of the writers on the syllabus engage with him, her students’ first reaction is often to ask, why bother with “yet another white European man?”
The professor explains the French philosopher’s important role in shaping the discourse around the concept of homosexuality. The other authors engage with him because of his centrality, and sometimes disagree with him. “This is how academia works,” the assistant professor said. “But it seems that there is this lack of understanding” from students “of what we are doing in academia and how we engage with the world. And they don’t want to engage with it like we used to.”
Conflicts often arise when a professor plays devil’s advocate in the classroom, or tries to poke holes in the students’ reasoning, said Samantha Harris, a free-speech and due-process lawyer at Allen Harris PLLC, who frequently represents professors accused of wrongdoing. From Harris’s perspective, it doesn’t take more than a student complaint to initiate an inquiry at most colleges, even if what the student is complaining about is, in Harris’s view, protected by academic freedom. Professors who do undergo such investigations often feel like their careers are on the line and that there’s little structure to the investigation process.
She speaks with instructors, both through her work and in social settings, who are “just terrified to teach.”
In some ways, the disconnect between professors and students is not a new story. Professors “are old,” said the Islamic-studies professor. Students are “young, so they think that we don’t understand anything.” But she worries about a “hostility against expertise” from students.
“I do not understand them,” she said, laughing. “And I was a student until very, very recently.”
Non-tenure-track faculty members, in particular, describe tiptoeing around hot-button topics because their employment is more dependent on student opinion than is that of professors on the tenure track, and they’re wary of generating outrage. And of course, the share of those contingent faculty members is growing.
“We get cases all the time from adjunct faculty,” said Alex Morey, director of campus-rights advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, “who say, ‘I said something in class. Someone reported me for it. And then lo and behold, even though I’ve been told verbally that I was going to teach next semester … that new contract just didn’t materialize.’”
A lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley told The Chronicle he has complicated feelings about the climate for teaching difficult issues on campus. (He asked to remain anonymous because he feared the consequences of discussing a contentious topic.) On the one hand, he wants his students to feel included in the classroom, and he’s open to discussing when they think he’s fallen short. But right now, he says, “there’s not a healthy space to figure that stuff out” because political tensions are so high.
Ultimately, at the “neoliberal, service-oriented” university, “we gotta keep the customer happy to keep those checks coming, and that undermines the ability to have a real conversation about education.”
The climate for teaching in red states can feel particularly treacherous, as Republican lawmakers pass bills restricting how certain topics related to race and gender can be discussed on campus. In Florida, a 2021 law allows students to record their professors’ lectures for the purpose of lodging a complaint with the college or to collect evidence for a lawsuit.
Any student could quickly tweet an out-of-context quote or picture of a slide deck. Johnston, the CUNY-Hostos student-activism historian, said that when he was an undergraduate, students also occasionally found something a professor said in the classroom “scandalous.” But no one beyond campus ever heard about it. “There is this fear right now that if you do something and it gets into the student paper, it is going to be in The New York Times three days after that,” Johnston said. (In Johnston’s view, most campus controversies fizzle out well before then.)
Other professors say it’s also their standards and policies, not just the content of their courses, to which students object.
Around 2018 and 2019, as a clinical assistant professor of public relations at New York University, Kerry O’Grady noticed a shift in how graduate students in the School of Professional Studies viewed their education. They began to see their schooling as “more of a transaction than a transfer” of learning, she said. She noticed more resistance than ever before on grades and on what was being taught and its relevance. Also, student evaluations were becoming “supernegative” and not constructive.
“I had to justify why more. Students were dropping my class more frequently. They wanted the easier instructor. … It was just so disheartening because my mentality — and I think it’s even more exasperated now — is, I was hired as an expert in this field of study to teach other people, and I should know how to do it best.” Yet students are “challenging my authority in the classroom and making me feel like I’m the impostor.”
O’Grady became the faculty director for the master’s in public relations and corporate communications program at Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies in January 2020, two months before Covid-19 turned higher ed on its head, creating an environment, she says, where “the customer was more right than ever, just to maintain enrollment.”
Today, she said, for many students in the program, if they do not see the immediate value of what their professors are telling them they need to learn, “it’s automatically a dissent.” (She recently announced she’s leaving her role at the end of the semester.)
Students today enter college with a stronger sense of their own identities and the authority those convey to speak on matters that concern them, said several people interviewed for this article. When their views are challenged by someone without that standing, they’re more likely to push back.
They are also more aware that institutions rely on students’ dollars to stay afloat. As the cost of college has steadily risen, requiring many students to take on burdensome loans, it makes sense for them to scrutinize the return on their investment.
An associate professor of sociology at a public university in Virginia, who asked to speak anonymously because of the political environment around higher ed in her state, said that she teaches many first-generation and Pell-eligible students, for whom a college degree is the key to upward mobility.
“They’re very aware of what they’re here for. They’re here to get a credential. They’re here to check a box,” she said. They view her “as a link in that chain.”
Students already see the university as a scam. They pay too much money and they get too little.
Put more bluntly by Jo Wolf, an adjunct instructor who teaches in the departments of religion and culture, and of history, at Virginia Tech: “Students already see the university as a scam. They pay too much money and they get too little.” The pandemic only accelerated that disenchantment. “The university was basically incompetent, which was revealed in the switch to online. Post that, they’re just done,” Wolf said. Students are getting a degree “because they have to.” But to them, their education “just feels hollow and empty and fake.”
Students also feel more comfortable seeking support and accommodation from their institutions. Colleges are seeing record numbers of students who screen positive for some form of anxiety or depression. They’re more open to discussing those needs with their professors and advocating — or occasionally demanding — that they be met.
But how much to accommodate students is not an easy question to answer. Professors who want to be flexible and compassionate still want to ensure students are actually learning. Andrew Smyth, who chairs the English department at Southern Connecticut State University, said the department’s attendance policy has become a sticking point.
“We do have a difficulty with students who miss a significant chunk of class and then say, ‘I should be allowed to make up the work,’ as they probably did during high school in the last few years,” Smyth said. Explaining to first-year students who’ve missed, say, eight or nine classes in a semester that the issue is not only their not submitting work, but their missing a lot of learning time in the classroom, can be “difficult.”
Some critics of the new student-professor power dynamic think university administrators have enabled it by acquiescing to student demands. When controversies arise, they say institutions make decisions from a defensive crouch, lest they risk bad publicity or a drop in enrollment. “They’re businesses,” said Sever, the Mount Holyoke College instructor. Of course they don’t want to be accused of permitting harmful behavior.
In the Hamline controversy, concerns about potential harm to students trumped other considerations. When the art-history lecturer’s contract was not renewed after she showed depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, Hamline’s associate vice president for inclusive excellence made plain why: Because of “this incident, it was decided it was best that this faculty member was no longer part of the Hamline community,” he told the student news outlet.
The outcry was intense. A staff member at PEN America called it “one of the most egregious violations of academic freedom in recent memory.” If professors cannot even show works of devotional art, a whole slew of things becomes totally off limits, said Audrey Truschke, an associate professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University. Hindu art, for example, often contains swastikas — an image that isn’t offensive to Hindus but is potentially deeply offensive to Jewish people and to anyone who associates the swastika with a deadly campaign of racial hatred, Truschke said.
But is what happened at Hamline broadly indicative of what’s happening at other campuses?
Johnston, the scholar of student-activism, does not think so. While many professors are intensely afraid that any student objection to what they say in class could get them fired, that’s exceedingly rare, he said, especially for tenured professors. FIRE collects a database of what it calls “targeting incidents,” which it defines as “a campus controversy involving efforts to investigate, penalize, or otherwise professionally sanction a scholar for engaging in constitutionally protected forms of speech.” In the 2021 calendar year, it counted 111 such incidents, resulting in 14 terminations.
Johnston understands and sympathizes with older tenured faculty members who feel like the classroom dynamic they’ve enjoyed over decades of teaching has been flipped on its head. “You felt like all of your students loved you … and then suddenly students are like, ‘Why are you teaching this racist novel?’ That’s going to make you feel weird. That’s going to be unpleasant. I don’t want to say that the kinds of sadness and anger that faculty are feeling under those kinds of circumstances should be entirely dismissed.”
But, he said, there is “a very powerful impulse” among tenured faculty “to take a bunch of different kinds of anxieties and boil them down to, ‘If I say the wrong thing in the classroom, I will be fired.’”
Some professors who spoke to The Chronicle do not see their students as particularly fragile or unwilling to engage in difficult conversations, including Truschke, who said she disagrees with the stereotype that Gen Z takes offense at everything.
Jennifer Ruth said her students just have new expectations of the curriculum and of the instructors who teach it. Ruth is a professor in the School of Film at Portland State University, who co-wrote It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom (2022) and has written several times for The Chronicle. She recently taught the film Germany Year Zero, a neorealist movie from 1948. She hadn’t watched it in a while and forgot how troubling it is to view. People hack a dead horse for flesh to eat, and a young boy dies by suicide after — it’s strongly implied — being sexually abused. She wished she’d given a content warning. Her students brought up that absence of warning, and Ruth apologized. “Then they were like, ‘OK.’” It was no big deal.
And, Ruth said, there are at least a few professors “who should be held to account, who aren’t.”
Many believe that Amy Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has reportedly claimed that Black people on average have “lower cognitive ability than whites” — and been accused by her dean of making, both in the classroom and outside of it, a litany of other racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic statements — should no longer be teaching. A Haitian American graduate is suing Utah State University, saying it refused to take meaningful action against a professor he says disparaged his background and drew a racist caricature of him, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
To Wolf, the Virginia Tech instructor, students now are rightly more demanding of respect, and value themselves in a way that she and her cohort didn’t when they were undergraduates. Some of her colleagues, she said, control their classrooms from a position of distrust of students, and of discipline, which does not get them very far. “You don’t treat students as if they are things that need to be controlled and molded and punished,” she said. “You treat students as humans.”
Forty years ago, said Franklin A. Tuitt, vice president and chief diversity officer at the University of Connecticut, students accepted certain classroom behaviors from professors because “we didn’t think we had a choice.”
Several professors also told The Chronicle that many of their students, contrary to being quick to challenge their authority, are anxious about speaking up in the classroom at all. Smyth, of Southern Connecticut State University, said in his experience first-year students, especially, have higher anxiety about being wrong. Other professors tell him they have to spend a lot of their class time providing reassurance, telling students they can speak freely.
A recent national survey released by Heterodox Academy, a nonprofit that promotes a diversity of views at colleges, found that just under 60 percent of students who responded said they were reluctant to discuss at least one of five controversial topics: gender, politics, race, religion, and sexual orientation. Those students also reported being wary of their peers’ reaction much more than their professor’s.
I was not prepared for somebody to be offended, in a secular university, talking about history rather than religion.
Scholars also say that professors are still ultimately the ones in charge. Timothy J. Shaffer, a professor of civil discourse at the University of Delaware, acknowledges that reality on the first day of class. “For as much as I, personally, want to be democratic, and that’s … how I want to teach, at the end of the day, I still have all the power, right?” He’s the person assigning grades or giving out deadline extensions.
It’s worth noting how one student who objected to the University of Michigan professor’s showing of Olivier’s Othello explained his and his peers’ decision not to discuss the matter directly with the instructor: In a post on Medium, he said they couldn’t have discussed their feelings with him because “he’s had tenure since before my classmates and I learned to read.”
A student at George Washington University echoed that view of faculty power. A lot of professors probably feel like their students are “woker than woke, whatever ‘woke’ may mean to them,” said Jordan Harzynski, a senior. But he finds it “baffling” that some professors can say, “We’re going to teach you the same things we’ve been teaching for 40 years because we’ve got tenure and we’re not going to get fired.” He thinks the tenure system has “disempowered students,” because those professors aren’t being held accountable for providing an innovative education. For example, many GWU professors, in Harzynski’s experience, will not allow students to take notes on laptops or tablets during class.
“How can we go into a 21st-century economy when we can’t even use 21st-century tools in a classroom that’s supposed to teach us those 21st-century means of getting to these 21st-century jobs?”
Some faculty members and higher-education experts emphasized that reconsidering your teaching, your course policies, and your content in light of who is in the room is essential to the job. That’s what it means to be a good professor, said the associate professor of sociology at the public college in Virginia. “You’re teaching to the students you have, not the students you wish you had, or the students you had 10 years ago.”
She used to refer to the book Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School, by C.J. Pascoe, and occasionally assign short excerpts from it. But in recent years she’s moved away from it. “I’m not putting the title of that book on a slide. … Is it because I’m quote-unquote afraid? Not really. I just think that for better or for worse, there’s a certain segment of students who would see that word and not be able to get past it.”
Her students, she said, are young and “figuring it all out. And my job is to be as supportive as possible. If that means that I’m going to avoid using five words — OK. That costs me very little.”
Maziar Behrooz, an associate professor of history at San Francisco State University, does not yet know what a teaching decision he made might cost him.
In the fall of 2022, Behrooz was teaching the history of the Islamic world between 500 and 1700 and showed a drawing of the Prophet Muhammad. He’s taught the course, and the image, for years. One student, a devout Muslim, strongly objected, outside of class. His main point, Behrooz told The Chronicle, was that it’s not permissible for an image of the Prophet Muhammad to be shown in any shape or form.
“This is the first time that this has happened,” Behrooz said. “I was not prepared for somebody to be offended, in a secular university, talking about history rather than religion.”
Behrooz said he told the student that, as the professor, he is the one who decides what’s shown in class. The student then complained to Behrooz’s department chair, who broached the issue with the professor, according to Behrooz. He said he explained to his chair that the student’s view is not uniform among all Muslims. The type of drawing he shows in class can be bought at markets in Tehran near holy shrines. Many Shiite Muslims have such drawings on walls in their homes, said Behrooz, who was born in Tehran and has written books on Iran’s political history.
The student also apparently complained to “authorities higher up” at the university, according to Behrooz. The professor said the institution’s office of Equity Programs & Compliance informed him in March that it would investigate the incident and asked him to attend a Zoom meeting.
A staff member in the vice president’s office at San Francisco State told The Chronicle in an email that she could not comment on specific reports or investigations. She instead described the process for assessing reports of potential misconduct. An investigator meets with the complainant to gather information and discuss options, she said. If it’s decided the conduct could violate the California State University nondiscrimination policy, an investigation begins, and both parties are notified.
The Zoom meeting is slated for early April. Behrooz said he’s not overly worried, though he thinks an investigation by this office — which fields reports of harassment and discrimination — is unnecessary. He’s not sure what the inquiry portends. “How it goes from here is anybody’s guess,” he said.
In the meantime, Behrooz is thinking through what, if anything, he should change about his teaching. As a principle, he said he doesn’t think religious groups, or students, should decide how an instructor teaches a course at a secular institution. “But one has to also take into consideration, I think, the sensitivities of some religious people, be it Muslim or otherwise.”
Should he talk about the drawing without showing it? Should he still show it, as he’s done for years? Or, should he offer a compromise — warn students that the image is offensive to some and perhaps allow them to leave the class and come back?
He hasn’t decided, but he’s considering the compromise.