The Forum | Trusteeship

Keith Whittington: College Trustees Must Defend Free Speech

January 23, 2019 by Erik Gross

Keith Whittington, Professor of Politics at Princeton University and author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, sat down with us to discuss how college trustees should understand academic freedom and work to uphold it.

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Keith Whittington, Professor of Politics at PrincetonYou wrote an excellent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Free Speech is a Core Tenet of the Academy. College Trustees Really Ought to Know That.” Can you talk about what issues you were responding to and what your message is?

Most immediately, I was responding to the events at Temple with Marc Lamont Hill’s public remarks in favor of Palestinian freedom that led to criticism from members of the board of trustees, who suggested that he ought to be fired as a consequence of his remarks. Ultimately, Temple backed down from that. This is the most recent variation of similar kinds of disputes that have arisen over the past few years. So I’ve been thinking about the need for educating new faculty about the importance of academic freedom. That episode sort of emphasized to me that senior leadership of universities, including trustees, ought to be educated on those issues as well.

You floated the idea of a free speech orientation for trustees. What would that look like in practice?

Well, you don’t want to burden their time too much, but you do want to acclimate them to this enterprise. So I think a small set of readings would be sufficient to provide that sort of orientation. I know for freshman orientation, for students, there have been some instances of role plays, or videos, or walkthroughs, to get them to think about concrete scenarios that might arise. That would be good for trustees so that if something happens on campus, they know how to think about it.

Your article pointed out that a lot of trustees come from a business background, where academic freedom obviously is not a concept. As a result, they aren’t geared toward protecting academic freedom. On the other hand, trustees from a business background can be very effective at reigning in costs and promoting innovation. What are the pros and cons of that business-to-trustee board transition?

I think it’s important for university boards to have a variety of people on them who can bring a range of different skills and perspectives to bare in helping the university manage itself more effectively. Board members who come out of a background in business and private industry are extremely useful in that perspective, precisely because they think about things differently than most academics do. They have a good understanding of budgeting and financial issues, as well as what skills the job market requires. So I think it’s valuable to bring people from business onto boards and take advantage of their insights.

“The Chicago Principles are a very good statement of values regarding free speech and academic freedom.”

But at the same time, we want to help them understand the kind of institutions that they are going to help manage. They don’t always have a good understanding or appreciation of that coming in. New board members need to be educated about what it is that universities are trying to accomplish. That doesn’t mean that trustees should think about those issues uncritically, that they should just take them for granted. They can have criticism, but those are important conversations to have and trustees ought to be self-consciously thinking about them.  

Why is it important for people to protect the academic freedom of ideas that they disagree with?

While trustees have clamped down on pro-Palestinian faculty, the issue goes both ways. As these debates have played out on campus, one thing we’ve seen is Jewish groups having a great deal of difficulty having their events carried on peacefully on campus. They’ve had difficult bringing speakers to campus. Universities ought to stand very firm in emphasizing that Jewish students have the right to talk about these issues and their own perspectives on these issues and invite speakers that have strong pro-Israeli views to campus. If we’re going to be effective in developing the principles and practices that would allow us to protect those conversations, and those groups engaging in those conversations, then we likewise need to make sure that we are protecting those on the other side who want to be critical of Israel. We’re going to have a difficult time protecting students and faculty that want to advocate on behalf of Israel if we don’t likewise protect students and faculty who want to advocate for Palestinians.

Let’s bring the conversation back to Marc Lamont Hill. Should the fact that he made his comments on academic freedom as a public intellectual, rather than as an educator, influence our understanding?

I think the issue is a little bit complicated for thinking about these kind of episodes of what is sometimes called “extramural speech,” which is faculty speaking in public about issues of general concern rather than actually engaging in their scholarship or teaching. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has long emphasized that extramural speech is inherent to academic freedom and ought to be protected in the same way. I agree with the AAUP that it’s important that this kind of speech be protected. It’s a little awkward to simply identify it as part of academic freedom strictly construed, precisely because what we are trying to protect is faculty speaking outside of their area of expertise, for example, and academic freedom is primarily concerned with protecting the ability of people to develop their expertise and communicate the ideas that they’re an expert on, not just communicate opinions on matters that they might not know very much about.

“It can be hard to speak up on behalf of these values if you’re on a campus that doesn’t respect them.”

If universities are going to be vibrant, intellectual places, if people are going to feel comfortable voicing controversial ideas, then we need to be very tolerant. We should also be concerned about whether or not we can construct an effective, fine line between people’s scholarship and teaching, on the one hand, and people’s public remarks, on the other hand. We have to cast a very broad umbrella over the ability of professors to speak up in public about issues of general concern, even when it’s removed from their scholarship.

Professor Lamont Hill was not sanctioned, but what is the impact of board members condemning his views and threatening legal action?

I’m happy that Temple at the end of the day came to the appropriate conclusion to not punish the professor. But I do worry about these public criticisms and threats to punish faculty. I think there’s reason to think that it will chill students and faculty in their willingness to talk about controversial issues if they are concerned that university leaders won’t have their backs. If they find themselves in the middle of a controversy, people are going to be less willing to say things that might create controversy.

Sometimes it’s going to be issues like this, involving criticisms of Israel, but it can involve a wide range of issues. Faculty might reach the conclusion that they should avoid talking about things, for example, their own research, that might have significance for public affairs. They might avoid talking about these things in public if they don’t think the university will protect them. Moreover, if people are sending this message—whether it is trustees or university presidents—that perhaps faculty ought to be fired in these kind of circumstances, it leads to a larger climate in which more and more people are going to think that that’s a good idea and will press to do that.

Playing off your last point, the same phenomena can work in the opposite direction. If you stand up for free speech at your institution, it might be reflected elsewhere. I think we’re seeing that with the Chicago Principles, as 2018 was the biggest year for colleges endorsing them.

Princeton was one of the earliest campuses to endorse the Chicago Principles. I was heavily involved in the movement among the faculty to do that, and I thought it was important for Princeton. Not only for our own sake, but it was even more important to do it as part of a national conversation about the importance of free speech and academic freedom on college campuses. So Princeton has been very good on these issues. We haven’t had many issues with free speech. That led some faculty and Princeton to say, “Why bother doing this? We don’t have a problem here.” Part of the reason why Princeton faculty ought to be adopting the statement was precisely to be a part of that national conversation and to try to send a message to interested stakeholders across the country about what we take the core values of the university to be. The Chicago Principles are a very good statement of those values regarding free speech and academic freedom.

An institution of Princeton’s reputation endorsing the Chicago Principles does a tremendous amount in helping the argument in favor of free speech.

I think it’s important for those of us at institutions that have been very good on these issues to 1) make sure we continue to be good on those issues, and 2) speak up and help educate people about why these are important values, why we ought to care about them, and why we should encourage other institutions to adopt these principles and practices. It can be hard to speak up on behalf of those values if you’re on a campus that doesn’t respect them, where the climate is already bad. So it’s all the more important for those of us who are in a better situation to be vocal about values.


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