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Commentary: The Three-Front War on Academic Freedom

By Tom Ginsburg

 CHICAGO – It has been a tough week for academic freedom in the United States. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis packed the board of a liberal arts college with allies determined to transform it into a conservative ideological bastion. Kenneth Roth, the former head of Human Rights Watch, was denied a fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School, allegedly over HRW’s criticism of Israel’s human-rights record. And Hamline University in Minnesota came under fire after an adjunct professor was dismissed for showing a centuries-old image of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class.

 To advance their core mission of generating and transmitting knowledge, institutions of higher education rely on funds from three main sources: the state, the market, and their students and alumni. The key is to maintain a balance among all three; depending on any of them too heavily poses a distinct threat to academic inquiry.

 Start with the state, which has a long history of constraining academic freedom. During the US Red Scares that followed both world wars, faculty were driven out of institutions solely for their ideological beliefs. While the explicit targeting of faculty is rare today, continued dependence on government funding means that universities – especially public institutions – remain vulnerable to efforts by politicians to influence budgets, curricula, personnel decisions, and much else.

 Republicans think this is a winning political issue. They argue that educational institutions, especially universities, are hotbeds of liberal indoctrination. In a 2021 speech entitled “Universities Are the Enemy,” for example, future US Senator J.D. Vance argued that universities pursue not “knowledge and truth,” but “deceit and lies,” and called his alma mater, Yale Law School, “genuinely totalitarian” in its hostility to conservative views.

 But far from protecting academic freedom, Republicans have sought to prevent the dissemination of ideas with which they disagree. DeSantis has been a leader in the effort to ban “divisive” lessons about race, following a moral panic about “critical race theory” in schools. Last year, he signed into law the Stop Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees (Stop WOKE) Act, which forbade teaching that “espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels” several ideas related to race, including the view that discrimination to achieve diversity is acceptable. It also sought to prevent anyone from feeling “guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” on account of their race or sex.

 Last November, a federal judge ordered a temporary injunction against the higher-education sections of the Stop WOKE Act for violating professors’ First Amendment right to free speech – a victory for academic freedom. But DeSantis is not giving up; he now aims to achieve his ideological goals by other means. By appointing six conservatives to its 13-member board – including a dean at the conservative Hillsdale College – he hopes to transform the New College of Florida into the “Hillsdale of the South.”

 But the state is hardly alone in suppressing academic freedom. Good university leaders educate their private donors – including industry partners and philanthropists – on the importance of staying out of academic decisions. But there is no doubt that donor pressure can shape an institution’s decision-making.

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 The denial of Roth’s fellowship appears to be a case in point. While university officials have not publicly explained their decision not to approve his fellowship, scholars claim that HRW’s alleged “anti-Israel bias” was the main consideration. HRW, which Roth ran for nearly three decades, has faced a powerful backlash from Israel’s defenders, including over a 2021 report asserting that in some areas, the “deprivations” inflicted by Israel on the Palestinians “are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.”

 Roth would not be the first person to lose out on a university position over Israel. In 2020, the University of Toronto rescinded an offer to Valentina Azarova to direct its law school’s human-rights program, in response to donor pressure over her past criticisms of Israel. The university was ultimately censured by the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

 Donor pressure was also behind the decision by the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees to reject the journalism department’s recommendation to offer tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones in 2021. Conservative donors apparently took issue with her involvement in the 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative focused on examining the political, social, and economic legacy of slavery in the US.

 Student tuition – which has more than doubled in the last two decades – reduces universities’ reliance on public and private donors. But overreliance on it generates its own risks, with institutions increasingly treating their students as customers. The result has been to submit to demands by students not to be exposed to material that they deem offensive.

 Enter the Hamline University controversy. The adjunct professor, Erika López Prater, did everything right, issuing a trigger warning in the syllabus and providing context before showing the 14th-century depiction of the Prophet Muhammad – a Persian masterpiece long beloved by Muslims, many of whom do not hold that all representations of the Prophet are forbidden.

 Students complained anyway, and the university’s “associate vice president of inclusive excellence” labeled Prater’s actions “undeniably … Islamophobic.” It is apparently easier to undermine a faculty member in the name of ensuring that every student feels heard than to defend a clearly legitimate pedagogical decision.

 The return of repressive state laws undoubtedly poses a grave threat to academic freedom. But as the Harvard and Hamline cases show, the excessive influence of private donors and students can be just as insidious. In all three instances, feelings of offended groups limited the content of higher education. Such grievances need to be aired and discussed, and threats against minorities should of course never be tolerated. But if academic discourse and campus debate are shut down every time a person feels offended, how can universities possibly examine controversial topics? Without intellectual freedom – one of the great achievements of American civilization – they can’t.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.


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The New Dawn is Liberia’s Truly Independent Newspaper Published by Searchlight Communications Inc. Established on November 16, 2009, with its first hard copy publication on January 22, 2010. The office is located on UN Drive in Monrovia Liberia. The New Dawn is bilingual (both English & French).
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