Lawrence Summers Delivers Major Address on Academic Freedom at Columbia Law School

February 3, 2015

As chairman of FIRE’s Board of Directors, it’s rare that I post to The Torch. However, I am making an exception by calling to our readers’ attention a speech recently delivered at Columbia Law School’s new Center for Law and Liberty by Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, a current University Professor at Harvard, and valued member of FIRE’s Board of Advisors.

Professor Summers has not been known, ever, for any fear of taking on controversial issues, including those pertaining to the academy. His January 29, 2015, speech was no exception. His remarks, entitled “Academic Freedom and Anti-Semitism,” follow the Summers “take-no-prisoners” approach to serious threats to academic freedom, a value which Summers was well-known for protecting during his Harvard presidency, as well as before and after.

The immediate cause for Professor Summers’s topic is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, currently popping up on university campuses, led by faculty and students seeking to isolate the nation of Israel in order, BDS supporters claim, to pressure that nation into making concessions in its dealings with and conduct toward the Palestinians. As Summers notes, this movement infrequently draws the attention of academic administrators, who too often assume a “no trouble on my watch” mentality that easily morphs into “no controversies on my watch.” Professor Summers’s lecture examines the implication of this and other attacks, as he sees it, against academic freedom.

Professor Summers’s clarion call for campus administrators to take on the huge and under-appreciated challenge posed by the politicization of the academy—the BDS movement is only one aspect of that politicization—was an attention-getter. He challenged his audience to recognize and reiterate the central importance of academic freedom, properly understood, in American higher education. Some of Summers’s prescriptions are obvious, others more readily debatable. But he demonstrates his profound understanding of the precepts of academic freedom, and he shows his ability—increasingly rare in academic administrative and faculty circles (and, sadly, student circles as well)—to re-think issues from the perspective of liberty rather than conformity, safety, convenience, or that most pernicious enemy of academic freedom: career enhancement.

FIRE is proud to point its readers and followers to Professor Summers’s profound and important lecture. Look out for further and more detailed commentary on, and analysis of, Professor Summers’s lecture by FIRE staffers here on The Torch.