Libertad académica en disputa en EEUU
Febrero 27, 2024

Amid spiraling campus speech debates, many professors are rallying in defense of a bedrock principle. But can they agree on just what it means?


Inscribed on a gate at Harvard are the words “Open ye the gates that the righteous nation which keepeth the truth may enter in.”
Credit…Adam Glanzman for The New York Times

Academic freedom is a bedrock of the modern American university. And lately, it seems to be coming under fire from all directions.

For many scholars, the biggest danger is at public universities in Republican-controlled states like Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has led the passage of laws that restrict what can be taught and spearheaded efforts to reshape whole institutions. But at some elite private campuses, faculty have increasingly begun organizing against a very different threat.

Over the past year, faculty groups dedicated to academic freedom have sprung up at Harvard, Yale and Columbia, where even some liberal scholars argue that a prevailing progressive orthodoxy has created a climate of self-censorship and fear that stifles open inquiry.

The fallout from the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attack on Israel has upended many campuses, as college presidents have been ousted, campus protest has been restricted and alumni, donorsand politicians have pushed for greater control. And it has also scrambled the politics of academic freedom itself.

In recent years, academic freedom, like free speech more generally, has become coded as a conservative cause, seen as a rallying cry for those who want to battle academia’s liberal tilt.

Now, continuing campus protest over the Israel-Gaza war has, in some cases, turned the debate on its head.

Some ask why, after years of restricting speech that makes some members of certain minority groups feel “unsafe,” administrators are suddenly defending the right to speech that some Jewish students find threatening. Others accuse longtime opponents of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts of cynically weaponizing those principles to suppress pro-Palestinian views.

The roiling debates have even opened up rifts among champions of academic freedom. Jeannie Suk Gersen, a professor at Harvard Law School and a leader of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, said that the cause stands “at a crossroads.”

“Do we think about academic freedom as something that protects everyone, regardless of content and ideology and politics?” she said. Or do we “carve out an exception,” as some advocates seem to argue, and forbid speech that is considered anti-Israel or antisemitic?

A Slippery Concept

It’s a profoundly unsettled moment on many campuses, which has left many academics feeling vulnerable. And even in calmer times, academic freedom can be an esoteric and slippery concept.

The American Association of University Professors defines itas “the freedom of a researcher in higher education to investigate and discuss the issues in his or her academic field, and teach or publish findings without interference from political figures, boards of trustees, donors or other entities.”

While academic freedom is often conflated with the broader principle of free speech, it is distinct from it. Under the First Amendment, all speech is equal before the state. But academic freedom depends on expertise and judgment — “the notion,” as the legal scholar Robert C. Post has put it, that “there are true ideas and false ideas,” and that it is the job of scholars to distinguish them.

Defending the rights of academics may be a hard sell today, as trust in higher education has dropped sharply amid partisan debates about teaching and concern over debt and high college costs. But academic freedom, experts say, is not about the privileges of professors, but about protecting the university’s core purpose and social value.

“The mission of a university is to sponsor truth-seeking scholarship and provide non-indoctrinating teaching,” said Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and a founder of the Academic Freedom Alliance, a multi-campus group created in 2021.

And for that to happen, George said, “we must be free to challenge any view or belief.”

Until recently, faculty at elite private universities may have felt immune from the kind of overt political interference unfolding in Florida, where Governor DeSantis’s efforts threaten “the very survival of meaningful higher education in the state,” according to a recent A.A.U.P. report.

But concern is now surging at private universities too, as congressional investigations of campus antisemitism at Harvard and a growing number of other schools have morphed into what some see as dangerously open-ended fishing expeditions.

Harvard, the nation’s oldest and richest university, has long been a prime target for critics of higher education. Since Oct. 7, it has also been the scene of colliding arguments about academic freedom — and how to defend it.

Much of the action has centered on the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, a faculty group founded last spring to promote “free inquiry, intellectual diversity and civil discourse.”

The group, which started with roughly 70 members, now has about 170. Politically, they range from conservatives and center-right figures to more traditional liberals, and include such prominent figures as the psychologist Steven Pinker, the legal scholars Randall Kennedy and Janet Halley, the economists Jason Furman and Lawrence Summers, the former medical school dean Jeffrey Flier and the political philosopher Danielle Allen.

The group was formed out of longstanding concerns, organizers say, though one catalyst was the case of Carole Hooven, a longtime lecturer in evolutionary biology. Hooven came under fire after a 2021 television interview in which she said that while diverse gender identities should be respected, there are just two biological sexes, male and female, which are “designated by the kinds of gametes we produce.”

The student leader of her department’s diversity task force, writing on social media, called her comments “transphobic and harmful,” and graduate students declined to serve as teaching assistants for her course on hormones and human behavior. Hooven, who did not have tenure, left her position in January 2023, after receiving what she has described as no support from the administration. (She is now a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and an unpaid associate in Pinker’s lab.)

In an interview, Pinker said that her case, along with others, showed that Harvard had become rife with intolerance and self-censorship.

“Leftist consensus had become so entrenched,” he said, “that anything that conformed to it was self-evidently true, while anything that disagreed with it was self-evidently evil.”

In an opinion article in The Boston Globe announcing the group, Pinker and Bertha Madras, a professor of psychobiology, said it would defend reasoned debate against those who would shut it down. “When activists are shouting into an administrator’s ear,” they wrote, “we will speak calmly but vigorously into the other one.”

Free Speech, or Harassment?

The group drew a skeptical initial response from some, including faculty members who saw it as vehicle for the views of prominent members like Pinker, a critic of D.E.I. initiatives and a longtime advocate for greater “viewpoint diversity” on campus. An editorial in The Harvard Crimson accused the group of caricaturing activists and seeming to take “a one-sided view of academic freedom.”

Then came Oct. 7, which exposed fissures within the council itself.

Their email discussion group, like much of the campus, lit up with scorching debate. One heated topic was how to respond to the outcry over a letter issued by the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee immediately after the Oct. 7 attack, which declared that the Israeli government was “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”

The hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman, a Harvard donor, demanded that the university release the names of students affiliated with the 30 campus groups that initially endorsed the letter, so employers could avoid hiring them. A “doxxing truck,”sponsored by the conservative group Accuracy in Media, appeared in Harvard Square, with a screen showing photographs of affiliated students under the label “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”

To some council members, harsh criticism of the students was part of the rough and tumble of free speech, and the truck, paid for by an off-campus group, lay beyond the group’s purview. But to others, the denunciations crossed the line from legitimate criticism to personal attacks that put students in danger and chilled speech more broadly.

Ultimately, the council made no statement. Pinker, one of five co-presidents, said it was decided that the optics would be off, given what he described as Harvard’s dismal record on free speech.

Defending offensive speech “just at the moment when it involves absolving the killers and rapists of Jews didn’t seem like an auspicious first statement,” he said.

Kennedy, the law professor, believes that charges of campus antisemitism have been exaggerated and weaponized by partisans. But he agreed that criticism of the student letter was within bounds.

“People are unrealistic when they say, ‘We want free speech, we want debate, we want difficult conversations,’” he said. “But then we want all smiles.”

For some council members, however, the fracas was “a clarifying moment,” as Ryan Enos, a professor of government, put it in an interview.

Enos, who describes himself as a liberal, said he had initially agreed with conservative colleagues that the biggest threat to academic freedom at Harvard was “the political homogeneity on campus.” But after Oct. 7, he said, it was startling to see prominent council members calling on the administration to condemn or even punish student speech.

Enos quit the council, saying members were “being hypocrites.” In the face of calls to punish speech, he said in the interview, “they ran away with their tail between their legs.”

He said he was also disturbed by the council’s lack of response to threats by Republican congressmen to revoke Harvard’s tax-exempt status, which he called “a shocking affront to academic freedom.”

“Liberals at places like Harvard were having a hard time defending academic freedom anyway,” Enos said. “Now, people are going to be even more skeptical.”

Gersen, another co-president, said the group was still new and “finding its way.” She was among 700 faculty members who signed a letter in December urging the Harvard’s board not to fire the president, Claudine Gay, and has describedcongressional hearings in which Representative Elise Stefanik grilled Gay and two other university presidents as “a McCarthy-esque spectacle.”

Other members saw things differently. But for a group dedicated to open debate, Gersen said, disagreement — including about academic freedom — “is a feature, not a bug.”

A Multi-Campus Movement

Still, the suspicion that groups rallying under the banner of academic freedom are pushing a specific ideological agenda has extended to some other campuses.

At Yale, a group called Faculty for Yale, introduced on Feb. 13, is urging the university to “rededicate itself to its fundamental mission” and “insist on the primacy of teaching, learning and research as distinct from activism and advocacy.”

So far, the group has garnered nearly 80 public supporters. But another group of professors immediately issued a counter-letter, urging Yale’s leadership to recognize the importance of diversity and to defend American universities against attacks from donors, politicians and “members of their own faculty, who argue that universities have lost their way.”

At Columbia, leaders of the Columbia Academic Freedom Council, a faculty group formed last month, emphasize in an interview that they were not a right-wing or a left-wing group.

“We want to occupy the center,” said James Applegate, an astrophysicist.

But the politics of free speech are fraught at Columbia, where the moves to suspend two pro-Palestinian campus groups and limit faculty and student protest have been assailed by some as censorship and applauded by others.

The group has not yet made the names of its more than 70 founding members public. Jacqueline Gottlieb, a neuroscientist, said some interested junior faculty had been wary to join, lest it complicate their tenure prospects.

“This is an illustration” of the problem, she said. “People are afraid.”

At Harvard, the Council on Academic Freedom recently endorsed a broad statement of principles, which called on the university to vigorously defend academic freedom, including against “attempts to use state power to curtail” it.

The philosopher Edward Hall, a co-president, said he would have been “happy” if the group had spoken out against the so-called doxxing truck. But parsing threats to academic freedom is “an intellectually complicated question.”

“There are a range of clear cases,” he said. “But what landed on our plates were unclear cases.”


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