FIRE 2019 Faculty Conference: Academics debate key issues in higher education

November 4, 2019

This past weekend at Boston University, FIRE gathered roughly 70 faculty members and graduate students from institutions around the country for our third annual Faculty Conference. As with previous years, attendees heard presentations from a variety of academic authors with a wide range of views on issues concerning academic freedom and the academic profession. And as with previous years, attendees found a rich terrain for discussion and debate. 

This year’s conference featured discussions of, for example, the tricky issues of “indoctrination” in the classroom and the extent of its prevalence; the importance of protecting faculty members’ use of social media; and a multifaceted examination of the use of trigger warnings — their efficacy from a scientific perspective, as well as critical commentary on the wider cultural debates over their use.

Inspired by the number of submissions we received this year from academics pursuing new empirical research, we also added a special session giving space to several scholars, a number of doctoral students among them, to share their early results. In addition to showcasing additional trigger-warning-related research, that session also presented research into student attitudes on free speech, faculty support of diversity-related initiatives, and new methods for measuring political and social tolerance. 

A high point of the conference came when renowned Harvard professor and FIRE Advisory Board member Steven Pinker delivered the conference’s keynote, which was a thoughtful and provocative examination of the nature of controversial ideas, what makes them controversial, and whether their controversy says more about the ideas — or about ourselves.

Harvard professor and author Steven Pinker delivers the keynote address at FIRE's 2019 Faculty Conference in Boston.Harvard professor and author Steven Pinker delivers the keynote address at FIRE's 2019 Faculty Conference in Boston.

Among the features faculty enjoy most about our conferences is their interdisciplinary nature. A wide range of disciplines are represented among the attendees, and the panelists on each paper come from varying disciplines as well, allowing them to offer their own unique perspectives on the material. Another feature that regularly gets strong positive feedback from the attendees is that the conference manages to foster an atmosphere of high-quality disagreement — sometimes heated, but always respectful. 

Indeed, attendees, panelists, and presenters found plenty to disagree on. 

Some papers presented starkly disparate views or offered opposing solutions to certain challenges, and panelists and audience members were unafraid to raise fundamental questions and challenges. 

Needless to say, FIRE doesn’t place its imprimatur on every proposal accepted for discussion, and might even institutionally oppose some of the proposed solutions to the many challenges discussed at the conference. After all, if we just wanted to listen to views in line with FIRE’s mission and advocacy, we could save a lot of time and effort simply by sitting in our offices reading through our Newsdesk archives. 

But by bringing a variety of faculty members to these conferences, seeking out a range of opinions, and creating conditions where thoughtful disagreement can flourish, FIRE is doing its best to help fulfill an important function of higher education. 

Perhaps most importantly, we help connect faculty with others from around the country with whom they might not otherwise connect, and we try to make sure the conference has plenty of space for conversations outside the scope of our official program. There’s evidence that this setup is paying off in meaningful ways; in fact, some of the collaborative research results discussed at our conference this year can trace their roots back to conversations that started at our previous conferences. That’s exactly the kind of impact for which we’ve been hoping, and we’ll do our best to continue creating those conditions for it in the future.

If you’re a faculty member and this kind of conference appeals to you, be sure to join our faculty network to receive further updates. 

In the coming months, we’ll have more information to share on future conferences, and we’ll be putting out a volume based on the papers presented at this year’s conference. We hope to see you there, and to keep these discussions going!