Academic Freedom Alliance: Q&A With Keith Whittington

March 08, 2021 9 min read

Stuart Taylor Jr.
PFS exclusive content

In connection with the creation of the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA), reported nearby, Keith Whittington, who chairs the AFA’s Academic Committee, a nine-member body which sets policy for the organization, agreed to answer some questions posed by Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS). He is Princeton’s William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics. The exchange follows.The AFA's website, including its illustrious leadership, is at www.academicfreedom.org.

Q. You are the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, a 2018 book that won the PROSE Award for best book in education and the Heterodox Academy Award for Exceptional Scholarship. Can you state generally your views on how freedom of thought and expression are faring at Princeton and other universities around the country?

A. One never wants to get complacent, but I think freedom of thought is faring reasonably well at Princeton, at least for faculty and relative to the prospect of formal sanctions. The university’s leadership has enough resources and principled commitment to weather the storm of particular controversies involving faculty speech. Unfortunately, faculty at other universities are in a much more vulnerable position. The freedom of faculty to raise difficult questions, express dissenting points of view, and pursue unpopular scholarly agendas is under systematic assault across the country, and in many places university leaders are not very willing to stand up for academic freedom when doing so is costly.

Q. Why is the AFA needed and what do you hope it can accomplish?

A. The AFA assembles a broad coalition of distinguished faculty who are willing to stand up for principles of academic freedom that were fundamental to the rise of American universities to their current global prominence. We hope to alter the calculation of university administrators who might be tempted to side with the mob against a beleaguered member of the faculty by showing such administrators that this will not be a costless decision. When public controversies break out regarding faculty speech, professors at the heart of the controversy are often isolated and vulnerable. They don’t always know their rights or how to protect them, and they are demoralized as a wave of public condemnation comes down on them. We hope to put such embattled professors in a better position to fight back and to put pressure on universities to live up to their own commitments to defend free speech and academic freedom even when doing so is hard.

Q. The AFA’s mission statement stresses that its members range across the ideological spectrum. But this is an era when fewer and fewer faculty members speak up publicly for strong protections of free thought, free expression, and academic freedom of the kind that most liberals championed a few decades ago. Have you really been able to attract substantial numbers of liberal and moderate faculty members and, if so, how?

A. It was not so long ago that the strongest voices in defense of freedom of thought could mostly be found on the political left. The good news is that a much bigger civil libertarian contingent is to be found on the political right than once was the case. The bad news is that traditional civil libertarians are in retreat on the left. There are, however, still many faculty – I think still a majority of the professoriate – who value strong protections for academic freedom. Certainly most academics think that their own freedom ought to be protected. Understandably, there is some distrust across the ideological divide and different priorities about what ought to be protected and from whom. But there is a broad sense that freedom of thought is under threat today, and that creates opportunities to building bridges and finding common ground for responding to such threats.

As we reached out to colleagues across the country I think we were a bit surprised, and certainly delighted, to find that there was a readiness to join a genuinely broad-based coalition willing to defend faculty from the range of threats that are out there. We were very self-conscious in insisting that this be a balanced and diverse group that could not simply be dismissed as coming from a particular ideological perspective, and I am quite pleased that we succeeded in putting together such a group. At the very least, everyone would like robust protections for their own freedom of speech, and this group is dedicated to helping to secure that. We simply ask that those who want their own freedom protected should be willing equally to defend the freedom of others. No one should get special privileges; no one should be left out in the cold. This effort to reinforce the principles of academic freedom will not work if we are perceived to only care about the freedom of some. It is critical that we be willing to defend the freedom of all. That’s the ideal, and that ideal remains very appealing to liberal and moderate faculty just as it is to conservative faculty.

Q. Do liberal and moderate faculty members feel as threatened by campus orthodoxies or censorship as do conservatives at Princeton and other universities?

A. There is no doubt that liberal and moderate faculty feel vulnerable and threatened as well. We still see examples of university leaders who would prefer to censor professors who would challenge their decisions or authority. Some liberal and moderate professors can easily see themselves as potentially at odds with local campus orthodoxies or just a set of vocal activists who can exert influence beyond their numbers. Others can imagine how alumni or donors might pressure universities to try to silence them. Plenty see the possibility of right-wing activists, media figures and politicians creating a political firestorm around a controversial professor. It might once have been the case that liberal and moderate professors could look around and think that their colleagues shared their values and perspectives and so they were personally secure from persecution for things that they might write or say, but that sense of security is rapidly evaporating.

Q. What has been the effect on academic freedom of the steadily increasing domination of faculties at Princeton and elsewhere by left and far-left faculty members and the dwindling numbers of conservatives and moderates?

A. Conservative professors have long been a minority of university faculty, but there is evidence that their share of the faculty has been shrinking. It is easy for unfamiliarity to breed intolerance, and universities would be better off – and academics would be better able to perform their core function of pursuing the truth through their scholarship and teaching – if there was more intellectual diversity on American college campuses. If professors had to routinely grapple with serious scholarly arguments from a wide range of perspectives, and if they got to know more actual conservatives in a professional setting, then it would likely be helpful to nurturing a more robust intellectual environment.

But beyond whatever problems arise from an ideologically homogeneous faculty, I think we are seeing in microcosm on college campuses the polarization and divisions that we are seeing in American society more generally. Universities are not immune from broader societal forces. They ought to be models for how we can engage each other reasonably and productively despite our differences, but too often they provide just another example of how hard it is to tolerate those with whom we disagree and how challenging it can be to try in good faith to engage with those who start from very different assumptions or hold different values.

Q. Will the identities of the AFA’s members – and donors -- be made public?

A. That would be our preference, and is certainly our starting point. Our founding members are all publicly listed on our website. Our initial donor – the John and Daria Barry Family Foundation – is thanked on our website. Unfortunately, support for free speech can be controversial these days, and for some potential members – and vulnerable academics – mere identification with such a cause can be risky. As a consequence, we are all the more appreciative of those who are willing to publicly stand up on behalf of these principles and declare that every faculty member has a right to speak freely and should enjoy the protections of academic freedom that facilitate good teaching and scholarship.

Q. Your mission statement says the AFA will defend faculty members’ “freedom from ideological tests, affirmations, and oaths.” Are violations of academic freedom of that kind really a problem at Princeton, or elsewhere?

A. The classic threat to freedom of speech generally and academic freedom particularly is the suppression of disfavored speech and the punishment of those who violate orthodoxies. But it is sometimes the case that authorities attempt to compel individuals to say things that they do not believe. Such compelled speech is itself a violation of individual freedom of thought, but such instruments of compelled speech can also be the tools for excluding dissenters and reinforcing conformity. During the McCarthy era, ideological tests were used to exclude and purge left-wing professors from the American academy. There is a growing movement today to use a new set of required affirmations to filter out potential faculty or graduate students who might not share certain orthodoxies regarding social justice or inclusivity. Those requirements can easily have ideological consequences that are quite troubling for those who value freedom of thought and intellectual diversity. It is one thing to require faculty to know and comply with university policies or legal requirements. It is quite another to demand that they endorse controversial social, political or philosophical commitments.

Q. Will the AFA confine itself to defending and providing counsel for faculty members in official disciplinary proceedings? Might it also fund lawsuits by those who have been disciplined or dismissed? And might it defend those who have been unfairly attacked on social media or otherwise by other faculty members, student newspapers, or the like?

A. Our commitment is to defend the legal rights of faculty to free speech and academic freedom. We would hope to help professors so that they can avoid being disciplined or dismissed, but if necessary we would help them vindicate their rights after they have been unjustly sanctioned. But we should also recognize that there are many things that are perfectly lawful and yet corrosive of a healthy culture of freedom of thought and robust debate. Legally enforceable rights are necessary but not sufficient to the health of academia. I would hope that the AFA will help encourage and foster a better appreciation for practices that are more compatible with a healthy academic environment, but there are no doubt public attacks on individuals that might be unfair but for which there are no proper legal remedies. We might speak out in defense of principles of academic freedom in some such circumstances, but creating a better and more tolerant intellectual culture will be a long-term project.

Q. Will the AFA have the resources to help many faculty members pay for legal counsel to defend their freedoms of thought and expression?

A. We are fortunate to have the resources to be able immediately to help professors who find their rights threatened. But if we are going to be able to continue to provide such assistance in the long-run and to be able to help a large number of faculty in the future, we will need to put together an even larger war chest. Unfortunately, it takes resources to vindicate the rights of individuals. Moral suasion will not be enough.

Q. How has, or how will, the AFA raise money for such purposes?

A. A number of us had been talking about various ideas for advancing the principles of academic freedom and free speech on university campuses for a while now, but the AFA really came together when we found an initial donor willing to help us put some of those ideas into action. John Barry is a Princeton alum who believes in the importance of American higher education and shares our concerns about threats to its future. The John and Daria Barry Foundation has been very generous in helping us get started. The Foundation shares our broadly civil libertarian principles, and we will need future donors to likewise understand that we are deeply committed to defending professors across the ideological spectrum no matter what political forces are aligned against them.

We will be taking donations small and large to help us continue these efforts, and we will need to engage in some active fundraising to really put the AFA on a solid footing and allow it to help a larger number of faculty over time. We will need to be deliberate in growing our membership over time so that we can successfully live up to our commitment to assist members who are in trouble, and we will have to be selective in how we commit resources to assisting non-members in cases that will affect the climate of higher education generally. The more resources we have on hand, the more we will be able to do to advance this cause.

Q. Has the Princeton Administration been morally supportive of the AFA?

A. We, of course, have not asked for the university’s blessing for this initiative, and we should never assume that we won’t find ourselves in conflict with any university administration at some point in the future. Nonetheless, in recent years the Princeton administration has been one of the best in the country in standing up for the principles that animate the AFA, and that example certainly gives us hope that there is a possibility of building on that model and advancing those principles nationwide.

Q. Anything to add?

A. There are plenty of reasons for pessimism about the state of freedom of thought on American college campuses, but you can’t start an organization like this without a sense of optimism about the gains that can be made. It will not be easy to sustain a broad coalition of professors in an organization of this type, but there is a common interest to be defended. If American universities are to remain the envy of the world, we will need to preserve a healthy intellectual climate that values freedom of thought and tolerates diversity and dissent. There is a great deal at stake.


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