The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Moral Clarity and Academic Freedom: Larry Summers at Columbia

February 13, 2015 by Michael B. Poliakoff

On January 29th, Professor Lawrence Summers inaugurated the Columbia University Center for Law and Liberty’s new program on academic freedom. The topic that Summers selected, “Academic Freedom and Anti-Semitism,” was a bold choice, aimed at a major source of campus tension. In this speech, Summers addressed the problem of the BDS Movement, whose goal is to “boycott, divest from, and sanction” the state of Israel, and revisited the position he had articulated as president of Harvard in 2002. 

His baseline principles are noteworthy and admirable. Like the late C. Vann Woodward, Summers emphasized the priority of academic freedom over students’ feelings of sensitivity, acknowledging but dismissing “the discomfort of being offended” as grounds for university action. He categorically rejected calls for “any form of speech code or ban on hate speech… Any form of civility pledge… Any limitation on the right of faculty or students to invite any speaker they wished to hear.” But as he had emphasized in his important contribution to ACTA’s Free to Teach, Free to Learn, he maintained that faculty have no right “to use the university to advance their ideological agenda, ” as for example, in recent attempts to pressure their institutions to divest their holdings in companies that do business with Israel.

Summers properly noted that he was speaking in his individual capacity and not for the school—something that BDS advocates have regularly failed to do. He also acknowledged that he finds legitimacy in some vigorous criticism of Israel and defended the rights of the BDS supporters to advocate for their position. He maintained, however, that the BDS Movement’s singling out of Israel, was likely to be anti-Semitic in effect if not intent.

Reviewing the more recent efforts of the American Studies Association to apply a selective boycott against Israel, Summers articulated why ASA’s actions pose a threat to academic freedom. Observing that Israel’s policies represent a topic outside the competence of the American Studies Association, he argued that the singling out of Israeli institutions and Israeli scholars is a unique and morally abhorrent effort at persecution.

The 1967 Kalven Committee Report on the University of Chicago’s Role in Political and Social Action observed that a university community “cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.” One of the rare exceptions that the Kalven Committee admitted was when the mission of the university and its values of free inquiry are under threat. These admonitions are highly applicable to the issues Professor Summers addressed at Columbia.   

In ACTA’s Free to Teach, Free to Learn, Summers warned that the future of academic freedom depended on a wise definition of it, and demands proactive maintenance. Accordingly, he argued in his Columbia address, college leaders, while fostering vigorous debate, also have a moral duty to speak out against BDS and exercise their own right to expose and criticize agendas that are parochial and bigoted. Summers admonished college leaders that allowing their institutional prestige to be hijacked in this manner would ultimately be an invitation for society at large to co-opt the university for agendas having little to do with academic goals. If this were to happen, the tradition of academic freedom in America could well come to an end.  


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More