The COVID-19 pandemic has caused abrupt disruptions to institutions of higher learning. The exceptional circumstances created by the mandate of social distancing has pressed universities and colleges to ask members of their faculty and students to move to remote teaching and learning, upended work patterns of faculty, students and staff, and generated unease about their economic and professional future.
Compounding these difficulties are concerns about the security challenge posed by the sudden move to remote learning. That online meeting platforms are not impervious to uninvited and unexpected intrusions or other opaque forms of surveillance suggests that this teaching environment may not protect the free exchange of ideas. The Middle East Studies Association calls on universities and colleges to develop policies that ensure the security of online instruction and protect the academic freedom of its students and faculty.
MESA has joined other academic organizations in a statement issued by the American Sociological Association calling for temporary adjustments in the review and reappointment processes of tenure accruing and contingent faculty to mitigate the impact of challenging circumstances created by the COVID-19 crisis.
The pandemic will affect academic labor unevenly as universities and colleges contend with financial difficulties and readjustments. Contract and contingent faculty, post-doctoral fellows, graduate instructors and students are more vulnerable than tenure-accruing faculty. MESA has joined other academic associations in a statement drawn up by the Modern Language Association asking that institutions ensure that funding, health, and other benefits are extended for graduate students, that these benefits are provided to those who do not have them, and that adjunct faculty be compensated for the time invested in moving teaching online.
The dangers to academic freedom increase considerably as teaching moves online. Teachers’ lectures, and other materials posted online, could be downloaded, edited, decontextualized, distributed outside the privacy of the “lecture room,” and placed on social media. As a result, professors’ lectures, teaching materials and presentations—indeed their entire pedagogical toolkit—can be weaponized to an unprecedented degree.
Organizations with political agendas have been quick to take stock of the opportunities created by the sudden and swift move to online teaching. Recent appeals to students by Turning Point USA to monitor and report on their professor’s “biases” have generated unease among teachers and students in universities. MESA members are especially wary of breaches to the security of their online teaching because many have long had to deal with attempts to curb their academic freedom. For all these reasons we call on academic institutions to protect both the intellectual rights and academic freedom of students and scholars of the Middle East.