University demanded a professor remove anti-fragile land acknowledgment from his syllabus

There’s an ongoing dustup over land acknowledgments at the University of Washington. Professor Stuart Reges teaches computer science at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. The school has a list of “best practices for inclusive teaching.” One of the items on the list is a land acknowledgment which reads: “The University of Washington acknowledges the Coast Salish peoples of this land, the land which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations.”

Professor Reges took issue with that land acknowledgment in an email he sent to other faculty back in December. He wrote that after thinking about it he had decided to post an alternative land acknowledgment on his next course syllabus. He even included the proposed language which read, “I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington.”

The labor theory of property is a concept John Locke considered part of natural law. It’s the idea that people gain ownership of land as they work to improve it. Here’s a brief video about the concept:

Reges alternative land acknowledgment was essentially a counter-argument saying that native people who lived in the Pacific Northwest hadn’t improved most of the land they lived on and therefore had claim to “almost none” of the property where the university now sits. “I decided to see whether it was acceptable to present an alternate viewpoint,” Reges explained.

Not surprisingly, this challenge did not go unnoticed. In fact, the school director first ordered him to remove it and, when he refused, removed it from his syllabus without his agreement. In a very real sense, the school is dictating the professor’s speech.

Almost a month later, on Jan. 4, Allen School Director and Professor Magdalena Balazinska ordered Reges to remove his modified statement from his syllabus immediately, labeling it as “inappropriate” and “offensive,” creating “a toxic environment in [Reges’] course.” Reges refused and criticized the department’s inconsistency in allowing other professors to include modified statements that are less critical of the pre-approved version.

In response, Balazinska countered that she “will ask any instructor who uses a land acknowledgment other than the UW land acknowledgment to remove or replace it,” meaning the only position professors’ syllabi can take on this issue is the one preapproved by the Allen School.

Balazinska also claimed that Reges’ land acknowledgment statement is “causing a disruption to instruction” (UW has not specified what that “disruption” is) and “is not related to the course content,” and informed Reges that she unilaterally removed the language from his syllabus. Balazinska then emailed Reges’s class apologizing because his syllabus allegedly “contained an offensive statement under the heading of ‘Indigenous Land Acknowledgment.’”

Balazinska also informed students that they could switch to another section with a different professor if they wanted to, apparently because the statement was so traumatizing they needed to run away.

In response to this, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has sent a letter to UW making the case that their behavior is inappropriate for a public university. The letter concludes:

UW is free to encourage its faculty to include land acknowledgment statements in their syllabi, but may not mandate that they either include statements expressing a specific viewpoint or remain silent on the issue, or punish them for refusing to make this choice.

As for Professor Reges, he argued that sheltering kids from alternative opinions was not helping them. “We should be encouraging students to be antifragile rather than shielding them from ideas that they might find upsetting,” he said.