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What We’re Reading: July 2021

Academic freedom is in focus in this month’s readings, with several pieces suggesting ways to promote faculty research and teaching autonomy. We also include a national survey of undergraduates’ views on the classroom climate for open exchange.

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Campus Happenings

A Military Appointment at Swarthmore
Colleen Flaherty| Inside Higher Ed | June 14, 2021

“Swarthmore College on Friday reaffirmed its partnership with the Chamberlain Project and therefore its commitment to hosting a military scholar, following months of internal debate. ‘I did not arrive at this decision easily, and I appreciate that it will disappoint if not anger some segment of our community,’ President Val Smith wrote in an all-campus message … ‘I ultimately drew from the college’s mission and my fundamental belief that critical to the liberal arts is our ability to engage in the exchange of diverse and often opposing views, not to shut them out.’”

Op-eds and Thought Pieces

It’s Time for an Overhaul of Academic Freedom
Emily Levine | Washington Post | June 9, 2021

“Even as it protects an increasingly small share of academia, the absence of a positive vision for academic freedom untethers its beneficiaries from responsibilities to society or citizenship. Academic freedom and tenure are instead linked in a circular logic: Academic freedom is expressed through tenure, and tenure is justified by the need for academic freedom… Only through a new consensus can educators move beyond a negative definition that arises out of conflict to a positive definition attuned to speech in an educational environment that furthers the mission of the academy.”

Joint Statement on Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism
American Association of University Professors, PEN America, the American Historical Association, and the Association of American Colleges & Universities | June 16, 2021

“We, the undersigned associations and organizations, state our firm opposition to a spate of legislative proposals being introduced across the country that target academic lessons, presentations, and discussions of racism and related issues in American history in schools, colleges and universities. … First, these bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn. The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. … Second, these legislative efforts seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking across differences and disagreements.” The statement has been co-signed by over 100 organizations.

How to Truly Protect Academic Freedom
Tom Ginsburg | Chronicle of Higher Education| June 16, 2021

The author recommends the establishment of campus offices of academic freedom: “Without an institutional base to protect free inquiry, standards are applied in an uneven way. The risk is that administrators will simply give in to the loudest voice in the room, which will, by definition, never be someone whose full-time job is to speak up for academic freedom. Institutionalization of academic freedom could look something like diversity initiatives, and would have the same goal: to advance core values in the culture of colleges. Staff members would serve as a resource for the faculty, develop basic explanations of core concepts for students, collect data, and advise leaders behind the scenes on how to handle controversies when they arise.”

State Universities Confront Limits to Their Intolerance
James R. Rogers | Law & Liberty | June 22, 2021

“Many academics fear what they see as increasing ‘political interference’ in faculty governance and assert faculty autonomy and academic freedom as absolute principles to stave off this interference. Yet in asserting these as absolutes, they deny any role for democratic accountability of higher education to state citizens, even in state-run, state-supported universities. In doing so, faculty may be setting themselves up for even greater ‘interference’ in the future.” The author suggests “academics might engage more vigorously with educating the public regarding the value of academic freedom” and “might craft a moderate and principled position, one that nods to democratic accountability as well as respects academic freedom, and acknowledges that boards in public universities and colleges have responsibilities beyond rubberstamping decisions faculty have already made.”

The History of Harvard’s Opposition to Single-Sex Organizations
John Hirschauer | RealClearEducation | June 23, 2021

Commenting on Harvard University’s policy to disqualify “members of unrecognized single-sex organizations [from] faculty recommendations for the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, leadership roles in on-campus groups, and captaincies on sports teams,” the author writes: “It’s hard to understand how a policy that penalizes students involved in certain types of social organizations is consonant with the rights of students as set forth in the university’s [University-Wide Statement on Rights and Responsibilities]. RealClearEducation asked Harvard whether the ‘free expression’ clause of the statement implicitly protects students’ right to free association, but the university did not respond to the request.”

How I Liberated My College Classroom
John Rose | Wall Street Journal | June 24, 2021

“In an anonymous survey of my 110 students this spring, 68% told me they self-censor on certain political topics even around good friends. That includes self-described conservative students, but also half of the liberals… I give students a chance to talk about the fact that they can no longer talk. I let them share their anxieties about being socially or professionally penalized for dissenting.… Both sides should support efforts within universities that promote civil discourse. We’ll all be happier about the state of the country if we do. After all, as they say, what starts on campus doesn’t stay on campus.”

Banning ‘Critical Race Theory’ Would be Bad for Conservatives, Too
Keith E. Whittington | Washington Post | June 30, 2021

“The simple fact is that bills like the one being advanced by Pennsylvania Republicans would subvert the central mission of American universities. We expect college professors and students to be able to read, discuss, confront and dissect controversial, difficult and even repellent ideas. We expect scholars to be able to examine issues surrounding race, just like other controversial topics, and pursue their inquiries wherever they might lead without fear of political censorship. They might not always do a good job of grappling with those difficult ideas, but laws are rarely a helpful solution to that problem.”

The Rise of a Generation of Censors: Law Schools the Latest Battlement Over Free Speech
Jonathan Turley | The Hill | July 6, 2021

The author summarizes recent free expression controversies at both public and private university law schools, including calls not to publish articles deemed offensive and speaker disinvitations. The author asserts that even when such calls are unsuccessful, they have consequences: “The fact is that most students and faculty do not want to be the subject of such a public campaign. Academics are notoriously risk-averse. They need conferences and publications to advance their careers. The threat is to lose everything that academics need to be active intellectuals.”

Big Read

American College Student Freedom, Progress, and Flourishing Survey
John Bitzan and Clay Routledge | North Dakota State University | June 2021

A nationally representative survey of over 1,000 undergraduates from 71 four-year colleges and universities found that about three-quarters of students say their professors “create a class climate that allows diverse views” and do not support “dropping discussion topics that make students uncomfortable”; even so, nearly half (43%) report they do not “feel comfortable sharing [their] opinion on a controversial or sensitive topic being discussed in class.” Clear majorities of students favor reporting professors and fellow students “for making comments students find offensive.” Responses varied with political viewpoint: liberals and independents were more likely than conservatives to agree that uncomfortable topics should be dropped, and liberals were more than twice as conservatives to favor reporting professors and student peers for their comments.