by Matthew Pertz, Opinion Editor
Recent revelations about controversial remarks made on Asbury Professor Neil Anderson’s Twitter account bring into focus how institutions of higher learning deal with unprofessional behavior from professors. The situation raises an important question on how much respect and professionalism is required both inside and outside the classroom.
Teachers and students have an implied agreement: we come to their class, sit up straight and do our best to stay awake, and they bestow their expansive knowledge upon us from the academic pulpit. But that relationship, like any other, requires a certain baseline of respect.
Authority is to be revered by the subordinate but also by those who possess the authority. Pedagogical hubris, reinforced by institutional tenure, can embolden misconduct. Reckless abuse of authority, including comments that breach the professional relationship between student and professor, doesn’t materialize instantaneously; it can slowly swell and harden into problematic habits. It gnaws at credibility and hurts the reputation of both teacher and college.
The relationship between professors and students is, by design, unequal. Professors are supposed to be vetted and tested on their ability to deliver valid, objective instruction in their classes. Regularly doling out controversial political opinions or openly offering unwanted matchmaking advice from the podium could be examples of a well-meaning but ill-acquainted professor who has become too comfy in tenure and awkwardly tries to bond with classes en masse. Engaging with classes on an appropriate personal level is always positive, but certain personal topics should be avoided for open class discussion.
Social media also represents a new hurdle for professors when dealing with questions of respectful conduct. Though exercising the right of free speech is important, Asbury calls its professors to refrain from language online that does not “build others up,” both online and in real life, according to the faculty handbook. When comments made by a professor cause students to doubt their professionalism, it can affect a professor’s ability to cultivate an environment conducive to learning. Even though a professor calling women “pigs wallowing in the mud,” outside of class may not relate to any classroom content, it will directly correlate to how that instructor is perceived inside the classroom.
This problem is not unique to Asbury. An NYU liberal studies professor was fired for starting an anonymous Twitter account that posted boorish comments about his employer. The position of a University of Missouri faculty member was terminated after she physically impeded a student journalist from filming protests. In another instance of abusing the responsibility of professionalism on social media, an Oberlin College professor was fired after posting anti-Semitic messages to Facebook that blamed Jewish people for the 9/11 attacks and the rise of ISIS.
Ultimately, such insensitive conduct from tenured professors or other faculty falls below professional standards of behavior by disrespecting their position of authority over students. When teachers can no longer hold themselves to the appropriate behavior required of any leader or role model, it’s the responsibility of the institution’s leadership to hold those instructors accountable to the highest standards both educationally and ethically.