Over the next year, a number of college presidents in the region will be stepping down. They include Lawrence Bacow of Harvard, L. Rafael Reif of MIT, Lee Bollinger of Columbia University, Clayton Rose of Bowdoin College, Anthony Monaco of Tufts University, Philip J. Hanlon of Dartmouth, Carolyn “Biddy” Martin of Amherst, Kathleen McCartney of Smith, Sonya Stephens of Mount Holyoke, and Kumble Subbaswamy chancellor of UMass Amherst.
This situation provides an opportunity for these colleges to do a major re-set of the path down which American higher education has been traveling in recent years.
Academic freedom has been a pillar of higher education for well over a century. Professors and students alike have been able to voice unpopular opinions without fear of penalty. Faculty members have long had the added protection of tenure, which provides that they may be dismissed only for some extraordinary breach of accepted protocol. Students have been assured that they may express disagreement with their professors without their grades suffering. However, it is no secret that academic freedom, a long revered and honored principle, has come under serious attack.
For example, MIT canceled a lecture last October by a scholar who had the temerity to criticize the campus mantra extolling “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The lecture, prestigious within academia, was to be delivered by Dorian Abbot, an associate professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago.
College presidents have been in a position to protect the rights of faculty and students, yet they have utterly failed in this mission. It is not at all clear whether this is because academic leaders are in fact no longer devoted to these fundamental academic precepts, or whether they have simply feared swimming against the current. Regardless, I co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression to address the sharply escalating assault on academic freedom and the lack of fair disciplinary procedures.
MIT is not alone. Consider the following:
Ilya Shapiro was a faculty member of the Georgetown University Law Center. When President Biden announced, in advance, that he would appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court after Justice Stephen Breyer announced his retirement, Shapiro indicated who his favored appointment would be (Sri Srinivasan, a federal appellate judge), and inelegantly tweeted that the court would “get a lesser black woman.” Biden later named Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as his nominee. Shapiro was suspended by Georgetown and investigated. He was eventually reinstated, but one suspects that the reinstatement was due to the massive publicity. Shapiro soon left Georgetown, having seen the handwriting on the wall. Despite the fact that Shapiro was eventually reinstated, the lesson taught by his experience did not go unnoticed in academia generally. The incident will long act as a general deterrence.
Students have had similar experiences. Students at Emerson College belonging to a politically conservative student group — Turning Point USA — created stickers containing the words “China kinda sus” (short for suspicious) because of the widely reported genocide of the Uyghur community. The student organization was suspended and faced disciplinary action because the Emerson administrators believed that the student action was racist and contributed to aggressive feelings toward Chinese students. The administrators missed the point: Turning Point USA was calling attention to the policies of an authoritarian government that was, and remains, likely guilty of genocide. FIRE was active in defending Turning Point USA, paying for marketing materials and widely publicizing the situation.
It should be made clear by presidential search committees that an important — indeed, essential — qualification for the position is a vigorous and public support for academic freedom in the form of free speech on campus. It should be specified that any applicant who disagrees with this central principle need not bother to apply. It is time for academic freedom to be more than merely decoration.
Harvey Silverglate is a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer and writer currently practicing in an “of counsel” capacity with the Boston firm of Zalkind, Duncan & Bernstein.