A New Faculty Group at Princeton Brings a Common-Sense Approach to Restoring Academic Freedom

April 29, 2024 9 min read

By Leslie Spencer, '79

A group of Princeton faculty have come together to create The Princeton Council on Academic Freedom. It mirrors the new faculty groups at peer institutions, like the academic freedom councils at Harvard and ColumbiaFaculty for Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Vision for a New Future

In February, about 40 faculty coalesced in a virtual Town Hall called by word of mouth, to test appetite for the Council’s mission and priorities. Organized and moderated by Classics professor Emmanuel Bourbouhakis, the discussion was led by Politics professor Keith Whittington and History professor David Bell. The outcome suggests that there is broad agreement with the Council’s basic goals, and with a priority to establish institutional neutrality as a university-wide guiding principle. The principle’s purpose, as articulated in the University of Chicago’s famous Kalven Report from 1967, is to allow maximum freedom of thought, inquiry and expression to faculty and students by forbidding a university and all its departments from taking positions on controversial issues of the day. When it comes to abortion, Supreme Court decisions, the wars in Gaza or the Ukraine, university presidents and their departmental subordinates in their official capacities must be silent.  As universities are being pressured to pronounce on such issues more than ever before, the time seems ripe for faculty to examine the costs of such public statements to a university’s obligations to itself and to society. Unlike Harvard, Columbia and Penn, whose faculty have risen in reaction to crises on their campuses, Princeton’s faculty group has the advantage of acting proactively, rather than waiting for a crisis.

 Emmanuel Bourbouhakis sees a twin mission for Princeton’s Council:  To defend the academic freedom of individual faculty members when it comes under threat from any quarter, and to make academic freedom itself the subject of ongoing inquiry and conversation on campus, raising the awareness among faculty that academic freedom is not something to be taken for granted.

What follows is a condensed version of our discussion.

LS:  Why do some faculty hesitate around joining a group of peers to protect their academic freedom?

EB:  In my discussions with individual faculty, I found some who were otherwise very much in favor of free speech and academic freedom, and then, like most of us, they have a third rail. We all have a nerve that that if pinched, makes us hesitate.  Would I advocate for the academic freedom of a colleague whose social media posts I find abhorrent, antisemitic, racist, whatever might most offend me?  This has always been the free speech principle. But out in society the courts protect everyone’s free speech. Here on campus, we as individual faculty members may be hesitant to come out and defend a colleague whose views we find obnoxious or repugnant. I am adamant that this is exactly what we must be prepared to do.

The argument I make to them is, just like free speech and just like the presumption of innocence, you tolerate the occasional views and expressions you simply cannot stomach, in order to protect everyone else.  If that means that sometimes we must suffer fools in our midst, that is the price we pay. We pay it because it guarantees everyone else the maximum room to explore ideas, to pursue inquiry without worrying -- could my research be interpreted to mean something that some may regard as unacceptable? If you open the door to dismissing people or reprimanding or punishing them in any way, then it is really the beginning of the end.

LS: Can you explain why defending faculty members’ extramural speech – meaning a tweet or a post, or something they wrote for an online magazine – is as important as defending course content and classroom expression against its use to punish faculty? 

EB: I would not pursue this initiative without including protections against the use of extramural speech to disqualify or otherwise discipline faculty, or students for that matter. Only a small slice of faculty teaches subjects of public sensitivity, like the contemporary Middle East, for instance, or a biology course discussing definitions of gender. That said, a lot more faculty may publish an article, tweet, or take part in an online discussion that comes under fire.  If it is First Amendment protected speech out there, it should not be used against you by the university in here.

LS: President Eisgruber has rejected institutional neutrality as a guiding principle, preferring a standard he calls “institutional restraint.”  Some think that the two amount to the same thing. Others think that a “restraint” standard lacks clear meaning. Your colleague Keith Whittington, a 1st amendment scholar and campus free speech expert, says that “restraint” is a compromise standard with no real teeth. He argues that it isn’t clear what it means, and it allows discretion to university and departmental officials if they want it.  He observes that activist faculty, deans, and administrators frequently declare “we cannot possibly remain silent” on a particular issue. This may sound ok in principle, but in practice it doesn’t work. What are your thoughts?

EB:  Neutrality raises the bar.  Restraint is too much at the discretion of a President.  I may approve of President Eisgruber’s exercise of restraint, but must I trust that the next president will be similarly restrained? Keith Whittington is right. 

Moreover, for many faculty the concern is not the President, whose stated positions rarely impact them directly. The concern is how this kind of discretion trickles down. You cannot have a policy that says only the President has the discretion of when to speak, and everyone else is to be muzzled. If the President has discretion afforded by a “restraint” standard, you can’t deny department heads or program directors that same discretion. Imagine if the chair of a department, backed by a marginal plurality, or even a majority, decides to issue a statement about some issue in the headlines.  Suddenly, I am called upon either to debate or disingenuously countenance a matter of no direct bearing on what otherwise brings us together as a department. If I’m an assistant professor without tenure, do I have to choke back my own opinion on issues which have no bearing on our common professional commitments, lest I risk promotion?  Princeton’s proposed policy is to “enjoin,” not mandate, restraint on departments. But what standard will be used to decide when a department has violated said restraint?  The neutrality principle has a commonsense understanding, which is why it is clearer to more people.

And at the core of the Council’s purpose is that academic freedom is not the kind of thing you want to delegate exclusively to the administration. As faculty, we should see academic freedom not just as an individual privilege, but as a collective responsibility to protect colleagues even, or especially, when they have said something that some may find controversial or abhorrent. What if a President bows to political pressure, whether internal, perhaps from some students, or external, from alumni or politicians? We as faculty really ought to have amongst ourselves some sense of our collective responsibility for each other’s academic freedom, as awkward or uncomfortable as that may prove, at times.

LS: In your view, if institutional neutrality were an established guiding principle at Princeton, would it violate the principle for President Eisgruber, (or any president) or a department head or a group of them, to express an opinion in his or her individual capacity, or in their group capacity?  By for instance, denouncing calls for the genocide of Jews, would such a statement be seen as an individual or group view, or does it come close to taking an institutional position?

EB:  While there are some who would prefer if university presidents did not issue statements on any political issue unrelated to the running of the university, since most people would assume that they speak for the university – which is why they are tempted to speak in the first place – one could imagine a president speaking about an issue she or he felt very strongly about but making it clear that she or he is doing so in a private capacity. That said, assuming the presidency of any large institution means checking one’s private concerns in the interest of effectively embodying the office. One must think exceedingly highly of one's individual convictions to believe that the public conversation would be much poorer without them. However, institutional neutrality, as conceived by most, would not affect the capacity of lower administrative ranks – deans, department heads, program directors, et al. – to speak as individuals or as part of larger groups, so long as they do not suggest in any way that they do so in their capacity as heads of their respective units. One may send a letter to the editor or sign a petition as a faculty member and simply leave out one’s administrative title so as not to suggest that she or he is doing so in that capacity.

LS:  Most faculty are involved in their own teaching and research, and depending on their field, may be pretty removed from academic freedom debates, or think it does not apply to them. They teach subjects like structural engineering or Sanscrit or Greek language. 

EB:  Yes, that’s right. But this does not make it less important. I think it is important precisely because while topical or potentially controversial subjects are a relatively narrow slice of university teaching, they are a bellwether, or if you prefer, the canary in the coal mine.  It is precisely when subjects are likely to provoke people that we should collectively be there to create the environment in which colleagues teaching those subjects are not walking on eggshells all the time, worried about possible penalties.  You cannot really think if you are struggling to find an offense-proof formulation for how to express something.  There must be good faith among students and faculty, that no one is saying something because they simply want to offend or provoke resentment. And, honestly, if I or a colleague were to offend, sorry, but that may be unavoidable in the long course of examining the worth or truth of ideas. 

LS: Do you have to explain to faculty how academic freedom principles work – why, for instance, institutional neutrality helps to guarantee individual faculty unfettered academic freedom?

EB: In some cases, yes. I have had colleagues ask whether a policy of neutrality could be used to restrict what faculty may say on the grounds that some will assume faculty opinion to enjoy the support of the university or could cast the university in a bad light. In those cases, I have taken great pains to assure colleagues that institutional neutrality is not a muzzling of faculty, it is theopposite. Neutrality affords greater latitude for intellectual inquiry and engagement. And any threat that it could be misused only further demonstrates the need for robust advocacy of academic freedom. But in many respects, making the broad case for neutrality or academic freedom is the easier part. The real challenge, I think, will not be getting a Council in support of academic freedom set up, or even attracting a decent number of faculty to it.  The real challenges will come when the principles in question are debated and tested.  This is why we want to make academic freedom itself an object of ongoing vigorous inquiry and discussion on campus. We want people to be reminded of why academic freedom is not something you take for granted. You must be constantly vigilant. You must have it on top of mind, you must debate it and understand what it means, otherwise it becomes a dead letter.

LS: On the question of momentum among Princeton faculty to support institutional neutrality and the mission of the Council: Keith Whittington offered the thought that at any moment, an event might change Princeton’s superior position compared to its crisis-ridden peers. He offered as an example that the events at the University of Pennsylvania were partly determined by the proximity of the Palestinian Writers conference held at Penn just before October 7.  Could the current campus protests at Princeton be such a moment?

EB: Unsurprisingly, Keith Whittington’s observation is spot on. The experience of some universities suggests that a significant portion of the campus, let’s call them the agnostics or undecided, can be swayed by recent events they think might have been mitigated, if not altogether avoided, by institutional neutrality. That said, the current protests were not prompted by any statement the university as an institution made or did not make and would almost certainly be unfolding much the same way they have even if we had Kalven already. Robust academic freedom, guaranteed, in part, by institutional neutrality could head off many problems, but not all of them.

In closing Bourbouhakis offered his view of the importance of alumni as stakeholders.

EB: I think it is important to see alumni involvement.  Alumni represent an argument we make -- that the stakes here are generational. They take place over a long period. If universities help shape the world, they do not do it in any one moment, so it is important to keep this discussion open and going across the largest possible number of stakeholders, and alumni represent that long-term vision. Alumni have a unique institutional memory.  They recall their own experience, and it is important to have their perspective.

Leslie Spencer ‘79, a former journalist, is vice-chair of Princetonians for Free Speech 

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