Haiti research trip provokes academic-rights aftershock

Row erupts over US college's rejection of master's work done after travel ban. John Gill reports

April 15, 2010

An unauthorised trip by two master's students to Haiti after the country was devastated by an earthquake has sparked an academic freedom row in the US.

Jon Bougher and Roman Safiullin, students in the Documentary Institute at the College of Journalism and Communications, University of Florida, were in Haiti filming for their master's theses when the earthquake struck in January, killing more than 200,000 people.

The pair were evacuated from their base in a town close to the epicentre of the quake, and made plans to return at a later date to continue with their project.

The plan appeared to have been scotched, however, when the university imposed a ban on "University of Florida-sanctioned, -sponsored or -approved trips" to the stricken Caribbean country.

Despite the ban, the students travelled back to Haiti to complete their project, a documentary about aid workers. They paid for the trip themselves and worked without any input from the university.

But when they returned to Florida, they were told their final thesis submission could not include any post-earthquake footage because they had broken university rules.

Joseph Glover, the university's provost, said: "We informed them that they could not travel in a university capacity to Haiti. They were told clearly that they could not use material they obtained post-earthquake in their thesis."

The American Association of University Professors has written to the provost raising concerns about the case, which the union believes undermines academic freedom.

In particular, the AAUP complains that the ban on the use of the material was imposed by the central administration, rather than by the students' academic supervisors.

Cary Nelson, AAUP president, writes in the letter: "Academic freedom does not permit restrictions on research students and faculty conduct when ethical or legal violations are not at issue.

"Graduate student research toward a degree is, of course, subject to approval by students' advisors and their department. It is a basic principle of academic freedom that such approval of intellectual content resides with qualified faculty, not with administrators.

"I am informed the two students had that approval; indeed, they had begun work in Haiti before the earthquake. The administration's suggestion that they change their topic represents a further troubling intrusion into matters that are properly a faculty supervision responsibility."

Professor Nelson also raises concerns about the implications for academics.

"One might well worry that if the university administration is willing to bar the use of post-earthquake Haiti research in a master's thesis, it would also be willing to prohibit its inclusion in a faculty member's tenure, promotion or merit-determination file.

"Such an action would seem to set a very troubling precedent that could put academic freedom broadly at risk," Professor Nelson says.

The students are now considering whether they have grounds for a legal challenge to the university's policy.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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