Elizabeth Weiss, a professor of anthropology at San José State University in California, wrote a summary of Stanford’s Academic Freedom Conference this fall for Quillette (click headline below to to read). She was not only a reporter and a participant, but also a victim—professionally damaged by those who violated her academic freedom. That’s because she studies remains of Native Americans, and those remains are considered so sacred by Native Americans that scientists are barred from studying them before returning them to indigenous people. That, of course, prevents us from knowing a lot about human colonization of the Americas. But the law is complicated on issues about whether scientists really aren’t allowed to study the remains first or, importantly, whose remains are they given the copious of indigenous people in North America? In principle “fossil” DNA could settle that issue, but that’s not the way it’s done. Any group with a claim to the land gets what’s dug up on it. If valid claims can’t be established, I think the remains should be kept in scientific custody.
Weiss wrote about her travails in an earlier article. She was treated unfairly by her department: not only locked away from the anthropology collections but also forbidden to photograph or X-ray human bones—or even photograph the boxes in which they were kept. The department also retaliated against her. Such is the conflict between indigenous “ways of owning” and science. My own view is that scientists should get the chance to extensively study the remains first, and then they can be given back to those who have a valid claim.
But you can read about the meetings below (yes, I do get a mention: I was part of a panel of four on the incursion of ideology into science), and you can see all the videos at this link. (Our science panel’s video is here).
Weiss concentrates on the group of people suffered professionally via violations of their academic freedom (see this panel involving four of them), but I want to highlight one bit about the chilling of speech that was also part of this conference:
When it comes to possible solutions, Dorian Abbot called for the widespread adoption of his university’s 2014 Chicago Principles (and its much more venerable Kalven Report), which explicitly uphold academic freedom and serve to de-politicize the university’s mission. The Chicago Principles state that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” They also dictate that while people should be free to criticize and contest views expressed on campus, “they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”
What this means in practice is that no department or unit of our University, nor its administration, can make any political, ideological, or moral statement. The reason is that such pronouncements could chill the speech of people who fear opprobrium or professional damage by bucking “received and official opinion” There are rare exceptions to this policy that involve the University speaking up against initiatives that violate its vital mission of teaching and learning. We’re the only school in the country with such a principle, but the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is about to get one, too. But that’s it: out of several thousand colleges in America, only two forbid the chilling of speech by official university proclamations about politics and the like. Every American college and university should adhere not only to the Chicago Principles of Free Speech, but also the Kalven Report.