Students and Faculty gathered on the Dominican Center lawn on April 1. (Photo by William Biersack)

by Laura Wetherbee

NEWBURGH–Students and faculty at Mount Saint Mary College (MSMC) gathered on the Dominican Center lawn Wed. April 1 to express their concerns regarding perceived restrictions on academic freedom on campus.

Those gathered at the sit-in explained that the college’s Board of Trustees decided not to renew the contracts of Professors Erin Crockett and Andrew Weiss, although both the School of Business (to which Crockett and Weiss belong) and the faculty’s Promotion and Tenure committee had recommended reappointment.

After Drs. Crockett and Weiss received the news on Mar. 24, a petition spread around campus and received over a thousand signatures calling for the reinstatement of these professors, while also addressing concerns about academic freedoms among students and faculty.

Sister Catherine Walsh expressed regret that the governing structure at MSMC appears to have been disregarded by the Board of Trustees, who gave Drs. Crockett and Weiss no specific reason for their termination and no opportunity to appeal the decision. She and others believe that an attempt to change the culture of MSMC is taking place.

Those present at the sit-in spoke candidly of their concerns.

Professor Sarah Uzelac is particularly concerned about the limits to academic freedom.

“Mount Saint Mary’s new changes have made the school more exclusive and people feel less welcome,” she said.

Professor Margaret Bussigel believes faculty should not have to worry about facing possible repercussions over what they teach.

“Censorship creates fear,” she said.

College introduces many students to critical thinking. Yet, they will no longer have exposure to diverse points of view if censorship exists, for it limits what professors can, and feel comfortable, teaching.

Bussigel said the “fear” censorship creates could lead professors to avoid discussing difficult topics, such as evolution and gender identity.

Students and faculty interviewed noted that Professor James Phillips was reprimanded by the administration for delivering lyrics from a popular Snoop Dogg song, “Gin and Juice.”

Professor Crockett explained that Professor Phillips was granted tenure at MSMC, but was told he would need to have a conversation with President Anne Carson Daly regarding what academic freedom means at a Dominican Catholic School.

“What happened to Professor Phillips is a major problem regarding academic freedom and limitations of faculty,” Crockett said.

Junior Joe Ianniello reported experiencing a new sense of exclusion on campus and feels the alternative lifestyles of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students and faculty are not being accepted.

“Censorship brings an overbearing sense of fear and limits freedom of expression,” Ianniello says. “We pay more than enough so that we can have our freedoms.”

Ianniello urges students who are afraid to speak up about their academic freedoms to reach out to Professor Uzelac and others for support.

Students have also said that new changes on campus have negatively impacted Residential Life.

An MSMC Resident Assistant, who preferred to remain anonymous, said she can no longer give sexual education advice to students seeking help.

“Many residential programs concerning drugs and alcohol are censored or not approved by administration,” she said.

She does not understand how students are supposed to learn how to deal with issues concerning drugs, alcohol, and sex when they are not allowed to discuss these topics.

Students and faculty agree that the new changes occurring on campus will affect enrollment at MSMC and may deter future students from applying.

On the day of the sit-in, Albert Gruner, Chair of the Board of Trustees, released a statement responding to the community’s questioning of the Board’s decision, saying “It is the College’s policy not to comment publicly on internal personnel matters.”

Gruner added: “Properly understood, academic freedom extends, with appropriate limitations, to academic research, classroom instruction, and one’s speech as a public citizen.”

Ultimately, the students and faculty who gathered on the Dominican Center lawn want their voices to be heard and are calling for dialogue about the issues MSMC is currently facing.