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In defunding Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute, legislators force academic freedom back into the closet

Alfred Kinsey (center) with staff of the Institute for Sexual Research, later renamed the Kinsey Institute

The Smithsonian Institution via Flickr

Alfred Kinsey (center) with staff of the Institute for Sex Research, later renamed the Kinsey Institute

Indiana state legislators finally found a way to punish the Kinsey Institute, the internationally renowned center for the study of human sexuality based at Indiana University. 

The institute has long been a lightning rod. When its namesake Professor Alfred Kinsey published his 1948 bestseller, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” and, five years later, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female,” he shed light on a poorly understood aspect of human existence long relegated to the shadows. He popularized the “Kinsey Scale,” which theorized that human sexuality is fluid and can range from completely heterosexual to completely homosexual — a heretical proposition in mid-20th century America. 

Over the years, Kinsey researchers became early pioneers into the study of same-sex relationships, contraception, AIDS, and sexual assault.

Despite its controversial research, the Kinsey Institute has always succeeded in brushing back attacks on its academic freedom. That is, until this month.

Indiana University’s historical defense of the Kinsey Institute’s academic freedom

When I was a student at Indiana University just over a decade ago, attacks on the Kinsey Institute were viewed as anachronistic. We were told heroic stories about the school’s admirable fight to defend its academic freedom. 

"[W]e have large faith in the values of knowledge, little faith in ignorance.”

In one case from the 1950s, a U.S. customs officer seized allegedly obscene photographs and other material bound for the institute’s research collection. The seizure was successfully challenged in federal court with the support of the Trustees of Indiana University. On another occasion, the governor called then-university President Herman B Wells to complain about receiving pressure from religious leaders over Kinsey’s work. President Wells famously hung up on him — an exchange immortalized in the 2004 biographical film “Kinsey,” starring Liam Neeson.

“Indiana University stands today, as it has for 15 years, firmly in support of the scientific research project that has been undertaken and is being carried out by one of its eminent biological scientists, Dr. Alfred C. Kinsey,” said President Wells in 1953. “The University believes that the human race has been able to make progress because individuals have been free to investigate all aspects of life … [W]e have large faith in the values of knowledge, little faith in ignorance.”

The legislative attack on the Kinsey Institute

Two decades ago, Republican lawmakers failed to defund the Kinsey Institute after they were blocked by members of their own party. But earlier this year, Rep. Lorissa Sweet proposed a state budget amendment that would ultimately succeed. 

In arguing for the institute’s defunding, Rep. Sweet revived old allegations that Alfred Kinsey — who died in 1956 — condoned child sexual abuse during the course of his research into people’s sexual histories. The Kinsey Institute and its supporters vehemently deny these allegations, which Rep. Matt Pierce, who represents IU’s district in the state house, calls “warmed-over internet memes that keep coming back.” Current criticisms of the institute seem to boil down to, “Who knows what they’re still hiding?”

Some figured Rep. Sweet’s defunding amendment would wither on the vine, as past efforts had. But it’s 2023: Threats to academic freedom are on the rise, and anything related to sex is particularly susceptible. 

Rep. Sweet’s amendment was signed into law on May 1.

“I don’t believe for a minute that [Indiana General Assembly] leadership really wanted that provision in the bill,” said Rep. Pierce. “But at the end of the day, they couldn’t bring themselves to say no to this rising base of power within the legislature.”

The amendment prohibits any state funding of the Kinsey Institute, including for on-campus facilities, utilities, programs, maintenance — pretty much anything you would need to run a research center. 

The Kinsey Institute receives about two-thirds of its funding from grants and donations. And the university says a legal review is under way to assess the full impact of the budget amendment. 

In 2016, the Kinsey Institute fully integrated with IU, probably thinking it was finally safe from legislative meddling. At the very least, decoupling it from the university will be a monster headache.

What Kinsey’s defunding means for academic freedom

The broader concern is the amendment’s impact on academic freedom and the chilling effect it creates for scholars conducting controversial research.

IU’s leadership stands by the Kinsey Institute, saying it “is committed to the ongoing crucial research and robust scholarship conducted by IU faculty and the Kinsey Institute.” But the university will undoubtedly be cautious in how full-throated a defense it mounts. IU is a public university and receives a significant portion of its budget from the state. It won’t want to risk further hits to its funding. It, too, is chilled.

“Academic freedom for me but not for thee” is an untenable position.

If we want to have a moral leg to stand on in defending the academic freedom of those whose research and ideas we support, we must also stand up for the academic freedom of those whose research and ideas we oppose. “Academic freedom for me but not for thee” is an untenable position.

Republicans, in particular, should be wary of attacks on the academic freedom of specialized university research institutes.

Over the years, conservative-leaning or free market research centers like the Hoover Institution at Stanford and the Mercatus Center at George Mason have withstood challenges to their funding and existence. Hoover is dealing with one such challenge right now. In Indiana, there’s even Ball State University’s Institute for the Study of Political Economy, which studies political economy in the traditions of F.A. Hayek and James Buchanan. If the political winds one day shift in Indiana, could it, too, see its funding threatened?

What’s more, upending a university research institute based primarily on a dislike for its namesake takes the “naming wars” to another level. Over the years, there have been regular debates over whether to change the name of particular schools because of their association with certain individuals. Princeton, for example, removed Woodrow Wilson’s name from its famed School of Public and International Affairs. And there was internal and external opposition when George Mason announced it would name its law school for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. 

These debates almost never put defunding the entire enterprise on the table — until now.

What’s next?

Where the Kinsey Institute goes from here remains to be seen. It is possible that funding gets restored in a future budget. But will the institute want it back? Its research was arguably safer pre-2016, when it was more loosely affiliated with the university and less subject to prevailing political trends.

What we do know is that we are suffering through a broader moment of moral panic. Faith in the value of knowledge, once thought safe — at least safer than it was in the 1950s — is giving way to faith in ignorance. 

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