Public support for free speech on campus is a key qualification for college presidents

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Over the next year, a number of area college presidents will step 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 is an opportunity for these colleges to fundamentally redefine the path taken by American higher education in recent years.

Academic freedom has been a pillar of higher education for more than a century. Professors and students were able to express unpopular opinions without fear of punishment. Faculty members have long enjoyed the added protection of tenure, which provides that they can only be fired for an extraordinary violation of accepted protocol. Students have been assured that they can disagree with their professors without their grades suffering. However, it is no secret that academic freedom, a principle long revered and honored, has come under serious attack.

For instance, MIT canceled a lecture last October by an academic who had the audacity to criticize the campus mantra of ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’..” The lecture, prestigious in academia, was to be delivered by Dorian Abbot, associate professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago.

College presidents have been able to protect the rights of faculty and students, but they have completely failed in this mission. It is not at all clear whether this is because university leaders are in fact no longer committed to these fundamental academic precepts, or whether they have simply been afraid to swim against the tide. Regardless of, I co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression to deal with the sharp escalation of attacks on academic freedom and the lack of fair disciplinary procedures.

MIT is not alone. Consider the following:

Ilya Shapiro was a faculty member at Georgetown University Law Center. When President Biden announced, in advance, that he would nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court after Justice Stephen Breyer announced his retirement, Shapiro indicated who his preferred nomination would be (Sri Srinivasanfederal appeals judge), and inelegantly tweeted that the the court “would get a lesser black woman.” Biden then nominated Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as his nominee. Shapiro was suspended by Georgetown and investigated. He was eventually reinstated, but it is suspected that the reinstatement was due to massive publicity. Shapiro soon left Georgetown, after seeing the handwriting on the wall. Despite the fact that Shapiro was eventually reinstated, the lesson learned from his experience has not gone unnoticed in academia at large. The incident will long act as a general deterrent.

The students had similar experiences. Emerson College students belonging to a politically conservative student group — Turning Point USA – created stickers containing the words “China kinda sus” (short for suspect) due to the widely reported genocide of the Uyghur community. The student organization was suspended and disciplined because Emerson administrators believed the student action was racist and contributed to aggressive feelings toward Chinese students. The directors 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 has been active in defending Turning Point USA, paying for marketing materials and publicizing the situation widely.

It should be made clear by presidential search committees that an important—even essential—qualification for the position is vigorous and public support for academic freedom in the form of free speech on campus. It should be clarified that any candidate who disagrees with this central principle need not worry about applying. It’s time for academic freedom to be more than just a decoration.

Harvey Silverglate is a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer and writer who currently practices as an “advisor” at the Boston law firm Zalkind, Duncan & Bernstein.

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