An Academic Freedom Declaration

November 3, 2022 • 11:30 am

A group of academics has signed a statement, “Restoring Academic Freedom“, addressing the chilling of academic discourse by ideological pressure, and suggesting solutions to this problem. It’s several pages long, so see the whole thing at the link above. I’ve put below (indented bit) excerpts from the document.

As of this morning, 641 people had signed the document. The signers include me and a gazillion people from various universities and fields. The desire for academic freedom, with truth not bent to conform to ideology, is strong!

As always, I ask people to refrain from defaming those who signed on the grounds that some co-signers are considered odious or ideologically impure. All that the signers have in common is that they’re academics or STEM people and that they agree with the sentiments of the document.

From the introduction: a bit about the issue:

Unfortunately, academic freedom and freedom of speech are rapidly declining in academic institutions, including universities, professional societies, journals, and funding agencies. Researchers whose findings challenge dominant narratives find it increasingly hard to get published, funded, hired, or promoted. They, and teachers who question current orthodoxies, are harassed in person and online, ostracized, subjected to opaque university disciplinary procedures, fired, or canceled by other means. Employment, promotion, and funding are increasingly subject to implicit or explicit political litmus tests, including approval from bureaucrats seeking to impose a social agenda such as specific views of social justice or DEI principles. Activism is replacing inquiry and debate.  An increasing number of simple facts and ideas cannot even be mentioned without risk of retribution.

Public high-profile victims are the tip of the iceberg. An atmosphere of fear and self-censorship pervades academia. Many faculty and students believe they cannot voice their views, question dogmas, investigate certain topics, or question the loss of academic freedom without risking ostracization and damage to their careers. Knowledge is lost, and many talented scholars are leaving academia. 

Universities and professional societies are failing to resist such illiberal forces–which have arisen many times throughout history, from all sides of the political spectrum –and to defend academic freedom and freedom of speech. 

Many universities and professional organizations now qualify their support for freedom: free speech, they say, so long as the speech does not offend or exclude; free speech, so long as it does not challenge institutionally approved narratives and conceptions of social justice; free speech, but only within narrow credentialed boundaries. These restrictions are counterproductive, even to their goal of advancing a particular ideology. People infer from censorship a desire to protect lies from being exposed. Historically, censorship has supported monstrous regimes and their ideologies. Bad ideas are only defeated by argument and persuasion, not by suppression. True justice and freedom cannot exist without each other.

And possible solutions:

What can be done?

We call for all Universities, academic associations, journals, and national academies to adopt the “Chicago Trifecta,” consisting of the Chicago Principles of free speech, the Kalven Report requirement for institutional neutrality on political and social matters, and the Shils report making academic contribution the sole basis for hiring and promotion.  

The Kalven report emphasizes,  “To perform its mission in society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.’’  The University and its administrative subunits must abstain from taking position on the political issues of the day:  “While the university is the home and sponsor of critics, it is not itself the critic and therefore cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.” 

“The neutrality of the university as an institution arises … not from lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity.  It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.”

We also call for faculty to create (or join existing) non-partisan associations, aimed at defending these values on campus, and at a national level such as FIRE, the Academic Freedom Alliance, Heterodox Academy, FAIR and ACTA. Professional organizations should prioritize the defense of academic freedom and free speech of their members. 

Many universities have officially adopted the Chicago Principles. Robust structures must be developed to uphold these principles. Faculty under fire from student groups, other faculty, deans and administrators, or university staff, must be able to effectively assert their freedom of speech and inquiry by appealing to those statements. 

Universities must deploy safeguards to ensure that administrators work to uphold these principles rather than to undermine them.  University disciplinary procedures must become transparent, following basic centuries-old protections of the accused such as the right to see and challenge evidence, confront witnesses against them, the right to representation, and innocence until proven guilty. 

University leaders must also promote and institutionalize free speech and academic freedom by concrete actions. Freedom is a culture, not merely a set of rules, and a culture must be nurtured. Free speech, free inquiry, tolerance for opposing views, meeting such views with argument, logic and fact, abstaining from ad-hominem attacks, character assassination, doxing and other unethical behavior must be highlighted in the orientation materials for all new students and employees. Freedom comes with a culture of responsibility, but responsibilities are better enforced by social norms than by extensive rules enforced by non-academic bureaucrats.  If community members or groups petition school leaders for the sanction or punishment of a faculty member or a student for expressing their point of view, university leaders should publicly and clearly respond with a statement affirming that the University is a place to discuss and debate all views, and that an attempt to punish others for having “incorrect” views is incompatible with the community standards of the school.  The University should also commit to all students, faculty, and employees, that it will not punish or sanction free expression.  

29 thoughts on “An Academic Freedom Declaration

  1. That seems quite good. I would sign, but I don’t have the high-end credentials of the signatories seen there.
    A small quibble. I was wishing that the earlier part of the document supported its claims about speech suppression by citing some statistics. What % of academics and students feel they cannot voice their opinions?

      1. I think it would have been good to have an Appendix to the statement with some citations.

        I think about liberal media where its pretty much shibboleth that when discussing some negative social phenomenon it is appended with the statement that it “disproportionately affects people of color,” with no evidence for that ever given. We wouldn’t accept “Just Google it” as a response to a request for that evidence, so I’m not sure why it should suffice here.

        If we have a principle that there is no “received wisdom,” and that claims should be supported by evidence — and the signatories are all in academia, which is built on citations! — then we ought not to hand-wave it away just because we happen to believe a statement to be true.

        1. I’m on a shuttle bus for Chrissake and you ask for citations? Give me a break; just search for “students and faculty uncomfortable expressing opinion.” I’ll give evidence when I get to my hotel, but seriously, give me a break. I know what I’m talking about, and there are lots of references. I’ll provide a few later but if you don’t know this already, you haven’t followed the free speech wars.

    1. Check FIRE website for the polls and reports about self-censorship and also about people targeted for their speech. The numbers are shocking — much worse than during the McCarthy era.

      1. Those of us old enough to remember the McCarthy era can testify to that. Although the young things have been told that the 1950s were terrifying, the incidence of self-censorship back then was trivial compared to the present academic atmosphere of MaoCarthyism, as the references cited above by our host demonstrate.

  2. I can only hope that everyone involved is expressing the sentiment genuinely and charitably, and not just in a “freedom for me, but not for thee” sort of way.

      1. That may be the case, but that does not mean that the people engaged in the current push are doing much more than giving them lip service. I’m curious how many people hypocritically claim to support them.

        1. You seem determined to show that these people are not serious. If you think they’re giving lip service to the principles, go and find out. Knowing many of these people I suspect that most are serious.

          Frankly, I’m tiring of this kind of negativity.

          1. I’m sorry you view realism as negativity.

            I don’t want to single out this particular group. The Iron Law of Bureaucracy shows us that any time there is a large enough / powerful enough organization of idealists, it will be taken over by opportunists – including careerists – and that they get in early. We have seen one idealist organization after another topple when opportunists take it over. I had hopes for the ACLU and the American Humanist Association, too. I wonder if any group of idealists can successfully fend off infiltration by opportunists; I don’t think it’s possible. Generations of ideological purity tests have shown us the horrors that leads to.

            I can only hope that everyone involved pursues the stated goals of the movement, and pursues freedom for everyone.

  3. Yes, fight back please, smart people.

    Institutions of higher learning have been largely taken over by a cabal of intellectual mediocrities….admin careerists, corporatists, ideologues, and activists. Since they can’t/won’t do real science or scholarship, or even come up with novel forms of art/culture/literature, they busy themselves with mucking up the place.

    About 500 years ago, a model of thinking was established that has brought forth unprecedented increases in human knowledge about reality. Some call this “the scientific method”, but in essence it is the process of hypothesizing, debating, and then rigorously testing explanations of the world. Each one if these components of the process (hypothesizing, debating, rigorous testing) is under serious threat.

    This quantum leap in human thinking is now in peril and hopefully it can be restored in our best institutions. It may need to involve a massive culling at some places of these fat layers of admin overhead. Anyone who is not teaching or researching needs to justify their existence at institutions of higher learning.

  4. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is attributed to Voltaire, but it appears he never actually said that. But it is quite a good reflection of his ideas, methinks.
    Now I wonder, if Voltaire didn’t actually use those words, who did ascribe it to him? It is said it was Evelin Beatrice Hall, trying to convey his philosophy (according to Wikipedia).
    I think we should candidly work our garden…

  5. This is an excellent activity. But how does the signed statement get to the governing boards and president of our universities? They have sanctioned the current culture and structures, and only they can allow for the changes asked for. For state schools with governor-appointed boards, i would think thatthe governor and secretary of education might be on the mailing list.

      1. Excellent, anna. Thanks. This is very encouraging. Will be signing as a retired nasa engineer who worked closely with research universities for more than thirty years.

  6. We originally thought to circulate the Declaration among the US academics only, but it already went beyond that circle — there are a lot of signatories who are not currently employed in a university. This shows how important the issue is for everyone – alumni, students, parents, and just citizens. So if you agree with the Declaration — please sign it!

  7. I’m glad I’m no longer a university person. As a researcher, I brought the University of California (UCSB and UCLA ) megabucks in indirect costs and hired a lot of students of varying ethnicities as research assistants.I would think twice about associating myself and my work with the UC system these days.

  8. A good piece. Short and to the point. Short enough to be reprinted and quoted liberally in the press, which I hope it will be.

  9. Signed (under my real name).

    Some of the signers, I’m proud to be listed beside; others, I’d rather not be associated with. But the message is important, and so…

  10. Are signatories from parts of the world other than the US wanted? I see it specifically refers to US universities. If so, I’ll sign.

    1. Doug Elliffe, please, did you get a response to this question? New Zealand does need this too, quite badly. But signing might be very dangerous for some here.

  11. I signed with my real name, though it is a risk for me. Some have signed after. There are now over 830 signatories. Maybe we’ll get more than 1000. Fingers crossed.

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