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Nashville State Is Accused of Spying on Investigation of Its Oppressive Climate

Nashville State Community College maintains such an oppressive climate for its faculty members that it sought to monitor and interfere with efforts to ask them about it, according to a report commissioned by the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Nashville State’s executives sought to surreptitiously identify which faculty members were being confidentially interviewed by investigators from Middle Tennessee State University. Several administrators, including George H. Van Allen, the college’s president, improperly sought to get access to — and interfere in the distribution of — an online survey intended solely for faculty members, the investigators’ report says.

A large share of the college’s faculty members complained of “hostility, intimidation, and retaliation” by the college’s executive leaders, and spoke of working in an atmosphere where “trust is low and fear is high,” the report says. Most, it adds, “view the trend for this negative climate as continuing to spiral downward.”

In an interview with The Tennessean, President Van Allen defended his record and described his critics as a “strong minority” of faculty members. He said he had tried to get access to the survey because he was concerned about its security.

In a letter to Nashville State faculty members, Tristan Denley, vice chancellor for academic affairs for the system overseen by the Board of Regents, said changes that President Van Allen had made at his college were in line with the system’s emphasis on student success, but had been carried out in a manner that “has played a role in eroding the campus climate.” He said Flora W. Tydings, the system’s chancellor, had asked Mr. Van Allen to “make definitive plans to address this situation and rebuild a relationship of trust with faculty and staff on campus.”

The system released the report to the Nashville State faculty last week, on the same day Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, was signing a unprecedented state law dealing with campus speech rights. Along with offering sweeping free-speech protections for students, the measure declared that faculty members have a right to speak out in the classroom as long as their remarks do not stray too far and too often from their class’s subject matter.

Diane M. Eagle, an associate professor of English as a second language at Nashville State and a vice president of the Tennessee conference of the American Association of University Professors, complained that the law lacked any provisions protecting the right of faculty members there to communicate with one another by email on governance matters. She described officials there as “trying to do their best to silence us.” Some state and national AAUP officials argued that the new state law defines appropriate classroom speech too narrowly, leaving instructors to worry about subjective disagreements over when their classroom speech is unrelated to their course.

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