Professors and Protests and Picket Lines, Oh My!

(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune
The Graduate Employees’ Organization at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign rallies in front of Foellinger Auditorium in Urbana on Feb. 26, 2018. (


“A Statement on Graduate Students,” outlines the rights and freedoms afforded to graduate students, including the right to academic freedom, employment rights for research and teaching assistants, and the right to be free from unconstitutional discrimination at work in the university. The statement was adopted by the American Association of University Professors in 2000.

The fact that this standard exists and offers graduate students the same kinds of protection relating to academic inquiry as faculty is somewhat remarkable. I know the AAUP has a longstanding commitment to academic freedom, but seeing that extended to graduate students validates the graduate student’s position as often one of the future professoriate.

The existence of these standards, however, doesn’t mean they are universally upheld or enforced. Over the past several years, the news has been filled with stories about graduate students fighting for better stipends or struggling to unionize.  And there are many issues — like academic hazing — that isn’t addressed by the statement.

I was drawn to one specific section of the statement under Recommended Standards No. 1: “they (graduate students) should be able to express their opinions freely about matters of institutional policy, and they should have the same freedom of action in the public political domain as faculty members should have.” I’m especially interested in “freedom of action in the public political domain as faculty members should have.” There’s a lot packed into that sentence.
This standard is especially relevant to scholars who write for public audience, like public historians. It pertains to professors who are called upon by news outlets to comment on current events or who participate in direction action protest, like Emily Satterwhite’s 14-hour lock-down at a Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site (

The standards state that graduate students are afforded the same freedom as faculty members “should have.” It is unclear if graduate student freedom is based on university-level policies that address faculty behavior. It also suggests, because faculty “should have” freedom in the public political sphere, that many do not. As a graduate student, if I’m at a university where faculty do not have this freedom, I’d assume I also do not have it.

Being forced to assume or suss out an unspoken policy is a problem. This kind of public political action is not address in the “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” and doesn’t seem to be clearly addressed at very many universities at the university level. (Places like Berea College have a protest tradition, and the university often provides funding for students to travel and participate in large-scale protests.) I can make assumptions about Virginia Tech’s position based on how Virginia Tech allowed Satterwhite to act as a private citizen, which she clearly said she was in several interviews. As the role of the university shifts (and more private-public partnerships are created, like the Amazon venture in northern Virginia) how will this impact the faculty and graduate students’ freedom to exist and vocalize in the public political domain?
Beyond the question of direct action outside the context of our research and expertise, what about graduate students whose research addresses social and political topics or organizations? And can we expect (in the context of future job interviews) to be asked questions about our personal political lives if our research focuses on political groups?Or if we’ve participated in a public political forum?

1 Comment

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One Response to Professors and Protests and Picket Lines, Oh My!

  1. Thats a big protest and not the time to do it with a pandemia, idont know…

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