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Why Defenders of Harvard’s President Are Focused on Academic Freedom

The petition that emerged on Sunday as Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard University, faced escalating pressure to resign took only two sentences to make its case to the institution’s leaders.

The statement in support of Dr. Gay urged the university to “resist political pressures that are at odds with Harvard’s commitment to academic freedom.” It added: “The critical work of defending a culture of free inquiry in our diverse community cannot proceed if we let its shape be dictated by outside forces.”

By Monday afternoon, nearly 700 members of Harvard’s faculty — almost a third — had signed, buttressing support for Dr. Gay, who had come under fire for her answers last week at a congressional hearing on antisemitism.

The principle of academic freedom has been a contested cornerstone of the American academy for more than a century. Supporters believe that helping to insulate teachers from interference can make faculty members more likely to foster debate, take on thorny subjects and champion ideas that might ultimately advance scholarship.

With a broad range of views at Harvard about the Israel-Hamas conflict, the faculty members who organized the petition backing Dr. Gay predicted that an appeal focused on academic freedom would resonate most deeply, said Melani Cammett, a leader of the effort and professor of international affairs.

The notion of academic freedom can be traced to European universities. But in 1915, with American academia reeling from episodes like the firing of a Stanford professor whose views ran afoul of the university founder’s widow, the newly formed American Association of University Professors detailed three tenets of the concept. They were “freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extramural utterance and action.”

Twenty-five years later, in 1940, the group and what is now known as the American Association of Colleges and Universities advanced another treatise on the principle, arguing, “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

The statement argued that professors were “entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” And it urged protections for professors so they could teach and research without fear of being fired.

The constitutional protection of freedom of speech is related to academic freedom but considered distinct by experts, in part because freedom of speech protects individuals from the government, while academic freedom relates to a professor’s employer. (Though in the case of state universities, there may be overlap.)

Still, academic freedom is not quite a blank check. Even the 1940 declaration that remains sacrosanct to many professors acknowledged that there were “special obligations” for teachers “when they speak or write as citizens.” Those included accuracy, showing respect for the opinions of others, and making “every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”

Many conservatives have long been skeptical of the seeming broadness of the concept. Some have accused teachers and professors of cloaking themselves in principle to dodge repercussions for marginalizing conservative thinkers, and Republican policymakers have targeted the tenure policies that can shield professors. Restrictions on classroom materials and lesson plans have also fueled worries about censorship.

Debates about the nature of academic freedom have also unfolded on campuses, with dozens of disputes over the years about whether administrators were properly balancing discipline and academic independence. The University of Pennsylvania has recently grappled with the fate of Amy Wax, a law professor who has written, for instance, that “on average, Blacks have lower cognitive ability than whites.”

Harvard has not been immune to concerns about academic freedom, even as hundreds of faculty members have now rallied to Dr. Gay on that basis. In May, the month after dozens of professors announced what they christened the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, the campus newspaper published an article headlined: “Does Harvard Have an Academic Freedom Problem?

According to a recent survey published by the newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, more than a third of Harvard faculty said they thought the university should place “greater emphasis” on academic freedom.

But as Dr. Gay headed to Capitol Hill last week, she told lawmakers in a written submission that she believed Harvard prized “open academic inquiry.”

“We believe the best path to uncover truth is through open inquiry and robust debate,” Dr. Gay wrote. “Harvard understands that hatred is a symptom of ignorance. The cure for ignorance is knowledge. But the pursuit of truth is possible only when freedom of expression is protected and exercised. At Harvard, we will not allow discomfort or disagreement with opinions fairly expressed to impede this pursuit.”

Dana Goldstein contributed reporting.

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