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What We're Reading: October 2021

Faculty academic freedom is in focus in this month’s selections, including scholars who report being threatened due to their work on COVID-19 or COVID-19 school policies.

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Campus Happenings

Message from Chancellor Kent Syverud and Dean David Van Slyke
Chancellor Kent Syverud and Dean David Van Slyke | Syracuse University News | September 13, 2021

“Recently, one of our professors shared thoughts on 9/11 on social media. These comments have been the subject of much scrutiny and vehement disagreement by critics. That is their right, just as our professor has the right to free speech, however uncomfortable it may make anyone feel. What cannot be tolerated are the harassment and violent threats that we have seen in response that have been directed at this professor. … Some have asked the University to condemn the professor’s comments and others have demanded the professor’s dismissal. Neither of those actions will happen.” The professor’s tweet may be found here.

Former Collin College Professor Suing School Over Dismissal Following COVID-19 Criticism
Brayden Garcia | The Dallas Morning News | September 24, 2021

“A Collin College professor who alleges she was pushed out of her job for challenging the school’s COVID-19 response is now suing the school.” Suzanne Jones, a contingent faculty member, had served on the Collin College Faculty Council, which had made recommendations for the school’s operations during the pandemic, and was a member of the school’s chapter of the Texas Faculty Association. The association planned “a panel about free speech and academic freedom at Collin College’s Faculty Development Conference in January 2021” before being “notified by the school that the panel had been pulled, according to the lawsuit. A month later in January 2021, Jones got the news that her contract would not be renewed.” The federal lawsuit may be found here.

Rhodes Sticks with Invitation to Peter Szinger
Colleen Flaherty | Inside Higher Ed | September 30, 2021

“Rhodes College’s philosophy department hosted a conversation with controversial bioethicist Peter Singer Wednesday, as planned, despite opposition to the event from faculty members. … In response to various calls to cancel or alter the format of the event, Rhodes said in a statement that ‘our institution’s spirit of supporting expressive speech does not prohibit Professor Singer’s participation in this virtual panel. At the same time, our community’s values compel us to denounce some of the views he has expressed repeatedly over years through various addresses, writings, and media interviews.’” The chair of the philosophy department asserted, the “premise is that ideas that cause anger and dismay ought not, for that reason, be part of the exchange and that premise, we think, is incompatible with our mission to teach students how to engage in productive dialogue even, and indeed especially, with thinkers with whom they vehemently disagree.”

After Donor Pressure, Beverly Gage Resigns as Grand Strategy Director
Philip Mousavizadeh and Isaac Yu | The Yale Daily News | September 30, 2021

“Beverly Gage said that she will step down as director of Yale’s Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy in December,” citing “the Yale administration’s failure to stave off inappropriate influence over the course from the program’s donors.” This followed “two donors’ attempts to influence the course by instituting an advisory board to oversee the program that would have included conservative figures such as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Gage’s resignation raises complex questions about free expression and the influence donors exercise on University campuses.” An updated version of the article links to statements by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate, the Department of History, and Yale University President Peter Salovey.

Students Call for Limits to Free Speech on Campus Following Bitter Protests
Daniel Dassow and Ainslee Raasch | University of Tennessee Daily Beacon | October 4, 2021

“Just as they have every year since the 1990s, the anti-abortion Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR) set up a large display on Pedestrian Walkway last week featuring photos from the Holocaust and American lynchings placed alongside images of fetal tissue, which the group says depict aborted fetuses. … Rather than simply protesting CBR’s display or their anti-abortion arguments, students began calling into question the very fact that the group is allowed to bring such a display to campus.”

Federal and State

FSU to Help Florida Legislature Discern ‘Intellectual Diversity,’ Campus Free Speech
James Call | Tallahassee Democrat | September 24, 2021

“The Florida Legislature’s plan to investigate political speech on university and college campuses is on schedule to survey students, faculty and staff in the Spring 2022 semester. University Chancellor Marshall Criser told a House subcommittee Wednesday he is working with the Institute of Politics at Florida State University to develop an ‘intellectual diversity assessment’ that will measure the level of tolerance of political speech on the state’s 12 public university campuses.”

Op-Eds and Thought Pieces

The Fight Over Tenure Is Not Really About Tenure
Molly Worthen| The New York Times | September 24, 2021

The author, a professor, opines: “If faculty-led tenure culture bears some of the blame for the stultified atmosphere on many campuses, administrators should admit their responsibility, too. For all the fashionable talk about innovation in higher education, most administrators are deeply risk-averse in a way that undermines one of the central purposes of the modern university: to provide a space for energetic debate. When conservatives complain about the lack of intellectually diverse debate on campus, they have a point. But the primary cause is not the predominance of tenured radicals in faculty positions. The problem is administrators’ terror of any controversy, any negative media attention, any headline that could irritate a donor.”

Why the Latest Campus Cancellation Is Different
Yascha Mounk | The Atlantic | October 10, 2021

In response to the decision by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to rescind its invitation to University of Chicago geologist Dorian Abbot to deliver its annual Carlson Lecture, the author cautions: “Although most outlets have covered Abbot’s disinvitation as but the latest example of an illiberal culture on campus, it is qualitatively different from other recent instances in which invitations have been rescinded—and suggests that the scope of censorship is continuing to morph and expand. … Abbot’s case is far more shocking than that of either Murray or Yiannopoulos. That’s partly because his opinions are much less extreme. It is also because the views that provoked such controversy are completely unrelated to the subject on which he was invited to lecture.”

‘I Hope You Die’: How the COVID Pandemic Unleashed Attacks on Scientists
Bianca Nogrady | Nature | October 13, 2021

“A survey by Nature of more than 300 scientists who have given media interviews about COVID-19 — many of whom had also commented about the pandemic on social media — has found wide experience of harassment or abuse; 15% said they had received death threats.” Additionally, “more than two-thirds of researchers reported negative experiences as a result of their media appearances or their social media comments, and 22% had received threats of physical or sexual violence. Some scientists said that their employer had received complaints about them, or that their home address had been revealed online. Six scientists said they were physically attacked.”

Academic Freedom, Attacked Left and Right
Samuel Goldman| The Week | October 15, 2021

The author, a professor, compares recent controversies over revisions to the University System of Georgia tenure polices and Yale Law School student email message, arguing that “the underlying motive in both these stories is a rejection of academic autonomy and the core purpose of the university as an institution devoted to discovering and transmitting knowledge.” Universities, the professor says, “are a place for developing and exploring the ideas that inspire, regulate, and correct the pursuit of knowledge. That ideal is the standard against which any university policy or procedure should be judged. For student speech, that means permitting offensive language and statements so long as they fall short of threats and harassment. … When it comes to tenure, that means recognizing faculty appointments are different from hiring for non-academic jobs. More than a contract for employment on specific terms, they are an invitation to participation in a particular kind of community. It’s only appropriate for fellow members of that community to alone be empowered to decide whether that invitation should be revoked, except in cases of gross misbehavior.”

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