Delta State University appears to have never had a policy on academic freedom, a core tenet of higher education that ensures faculty will not be disciplined for conducting research that could be considered controversial. 

The lack of such a policy, which free speech experts called “very unusual,” was discovered over the summer by a faculty member who realized the oversight could have imperiled the university’s upcoming reaccreditation, according to emails obtained by Mississippi Today. 

The faculty senate president immediately started drafting a new policy at the request of an administrator overseeing accreditation. 

But over the summer, discussions hit a hitch on a clause that said free speech cannot disrupt the university’s functioning. The faculty senate wanted to include an exception for civil disobedience, given the Mississippi Delta’s storied legacy of civil rights protests, and the provost, who stepped down last month, did not. 

That exception did not make it into the final version of the policy, which was released to the campus today. 

The policy development comes as Delta State faculty are working to start the university’s first-ever chapter of the American Association of University Professors. The advocacy organization’s famous 1940 statement on academic freedom forms the basis of many academic freedom policies at colleges nationwide. 

Academic freedom in higher education is a hot-button issue across the country and at Delta State where there was public outcry earlier this year over the appointment of an interim band director who made transphobic comments on a now-deleted podcast. 

But the real reason for these policies, experts say, isn’t the flashy moments when faculty members express far-right or far-left political opinions in the classroom or off-campus. It’s to ensure research that challenges powerful or corporate interests, like gender-affirming care or the risks of pesticides, is protected. 

“When faculty don’t have those academic rights, we can’t have that marketplace of ideas, that free inquiry that advances our whole society,” said Laura Beltz, a policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, which studies free-speech policies in higher education. 

Delta State administrators who worked on the new policy recognized this, emails show. 

“As you know, teaching “difficult” topics is not the main reason to have an Academic Freedom policy,” Josie Welsh, an associate provost overseeing reaccreditation, wrote to Christopher Jurgenson, the faculty senate president, on June 22. “The primary purpose of such a policy is to protect faculty whose research findings challenge fundamental teachings (e.g. Earth revolving around the sun and not the sun revolving around Earth).” 

Welsh and Jurgenson did not respond to inquiries from Mississippi Today. 

Still, Welsh wrote she had checked the two previous reports the university had submitted to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges — a regional accreditor that upholds educational standards — and there was no mention of such a policy. 

This is significant because without accreditation, Delta State students likely wouldn’t be eligible for federal financial aid or use their degree to go into certain professions. 

“Long story short, for decades now we have been cobbling together bits and pieces of other policies to argue that we have a policy on Academic Freedom,” she wrote. “Why we did that instead of just adopting a standard policy on Academic Freedom I do not know. Let’s fix that.” 

The discovery meant that Delta State was likely the only public university in Mississippi without such a policy. The state’s seven other public universities all have academic freedom policies online or in faculty handbooks, Mississippi Today found. 

Though the university had been working to create an academic freedom policy in the spring, a looming accreditation deadline in the fall meant it was vital to write one immediately, Welsh added. 

Artificial intelligence, she mused, could help. 

“This immediate need highlights the ways that AI technology can be used in a positive manner,” she wrote. “We certainly don’t want to adopt the first CHATGPT-generated Academic Freedom policy; however, AI tools could be very useful in generating a policy appropriate for Delta State.”  

Jurgenson got to work right away. He had a draft the next week. 

A month later, the sticking point arose shortly after news broke about the university hiring Steven Hugley, the interim band director, despite disparaging comments he’d made about trans people and women on a podcast. 

Jurgenson had added an exception for civil disobedience, after the faculty senate, an elected group of professors who represent their departments, spent 45 minutes discussing the issue. 

Civil disobedience is the act of peaceful, but unlawful, political protest. It has played a significant role in the history of Delta State, most notably in 1969, when dozens of the first Black students at the predominantly white institution were arrested and sent to Parchman after they held a sit-in outside the president’s office. 

It was a unique request. Beltz told Mississippi Today she had never heard of faculty asking an exception for civil disobedience. 

Andy Novobilski, the provost, took issue with this inclusion. 

“The term ‘Civil Disobedience’ describes a non-violent action by a person or group of persons who knowingly break rules with the willingness to suffer the consequences of their actions to bring about a greater good,” he wrote on July 26. “Somewhere along the way, the concept has forgotten the consequences portion.” 

The disagreement seemed to stem from two views of the role of higher education in Mississippi. The faculty senate was calling back to a largely bygone era when institutions like the private, historically Black Tougaloo College were nodes of political activism in the state. Novobilski was reminding them of the hard reality that universities are also nonprofit entities with rules and regulations. 

That same day, Jurgenson replied that the goal was simply to ensure faculty would still have a job if, hypothetically, they were arrested at an unlawful protest, adding that “given Mississippi’s history with civil rights, telling the faculty they cannot exercise academic freedom in the form of civil disobedience will be met with resistance.” 

Novobilski doubled down.

“Delta State does not condone the breaking of laws and certainly won’t change that by writing it into policy,” he wrote back. “The statement condoning civil disobedience is not appropriate.” 

That night, Jurgenson conceded, agreeing it was a “bad look” for the university to endorse illegal behavior. 

It would have been tricky for Delta State to create a civil-disobedience exception to the free speech policy that did not implicitly pick-and-choose which rules are allowed to be broken and in what way, said Kristen Shahverdian, a program coordinator with PEN America, a nonprofit that promotes free expression. 

“It’s really hard for a university to say, this thing that happened that clearly broke XYZ rule, we’re gonna say that that is okay, but this other thing that also broke the same rule is not okay,” she said. “These policies need to be instituted in a viewpoint neutral way.” 

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.