Should a Public University Speak Out Against Its Own Professor?

By February 15, 2008

Yesterday’s Inside Higher Ed article about controversial professor Kevin MacDonald has generated a vigorous debate. MacDonald, a longtime professor at California State University at Long Beach (CSULB) who has "applied evolutionary psychology to studying Jews in ways that scholars find offensive and inaccurate," does not seem to be personally embattled at CSULB, but a controversy has been brewing over what, if anything, CSULB or the psychology department should say to distance the institution from views that many on campus do not respect. The question is whether it is appropriate for a public university to declare as an institution that certain views, while tolerated, are reprehensible or indefensiblerather than letting faculty members battle for hearts and minds in a true marketplace of ideas.

One CSULB professor, Jeffrey Blutinger, suggests that CSULB can report that "MacDonald’s work does not enjoy the respect of many of his colleagues" without thereby interfering with MacDonald’s rights, a way for the university to signal the true state of affairs on campus without coming out for or against any particular idea.

CSULB president F. King Alexander suggests that even this kind of statement, however, could go too far:

Alexander … said in an interview that he does not personally agree with MacDonald’s views, but that he believes the psychology department or other faculty bodies are best positioned to evaluate the situation-and that presidents and institutions should not speak out about faculty members.

"I do not reprimand people for their beliefs," he said. "We do address behavioral issues, but as a university, we have to respect the vast spectrum of beliefs that exist on our campus, no matter how much I might disagree with them." He added: "The day that we reprimand people, especially in universities, for expressing their beliefs, no matter how abhorrent or distasteful those beliefs may be, is the day that we begin returning back to tyranny itself."

Alexander raises the stakes quite eloquently.

Those who think that all the views of every professor on campus are sanctioned by the university are simply mistaken. They are mistaken about what academic freedom means, and those who make such mistakes should be encouraged to consider the difference between toleration and acceptance. At the same time, institutional toleration does not have to mean institutional silence. Where university statements become a threat to academic freedom is an open question and one that FIRE has been considering since its founding. We will be following this case as it progresses.