Princeton University—the subject of the new Princeton Principles for a Campus Culture of Free Inquiry issued in early August by the James Madison Program at the university — is already seeing those principles tested amid controversy over assistant professor Satyel Larson including a contentious book about Israel’s role in the Middle East on her course reading list. The university, to its credit, appears to have passed the test and will not force Larson to remove the book.
That’s a positive sign amid worrying calls for the book’s removal from the class – and, in at least one case, Larson’s termination. The chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies in which Larson teaches stood by the university’s promises of academic freedom, telling Inside Higher Ed he found the calls from outsiders to remove the book “very unsettling.”
Princeton’s campus is reportedly conflicted about the book’s inclusion, according to Inside Higher Ed. Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, executive director of the Center for Jewish Life and a chaplain of Princeton Hillel, asked for “reconsideration” of the book’s inclusion, while also stating he supports the rights of professors to control their own class content.
Standing by the university’s promises of academic freedom reassures faculty their administration will support their rights.
The book in question, “The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability,” is listed on a sample reading list for Larson’s course “The Healing Humanities: Decolonizing Trauma Studies from the Global South.”
Challenges to the book came from authorities like Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism, who urged Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber to intervene to remove it from Larson’s course. The minister claimed the book constitutes “antisemitic propaganda” in insinuating “Israel uses a deliberate strategy of maiming Palestinians.” Israeli advocacy groups also called on Princeton to intervene in the professor’s pedagogy, with one alleging the book “echoes age-old antisemitic blood libels.”
The Princeton controversy arises amid coast-to coast legal challenges over professors’ ability to control the content of their classes. For example, FIRE recently filed a lawsuit challenging systemwide regulations in a California community college district forcing professors to teach politicized conceptions of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” There, the state community college system is attempting to dictate on the basis of viewpoint to faculty what they must do with the content of their classes. That suit comes almost a year after FIRE sued over Florida’s “Stop W.O.K.E.” act, which attempted to limit the promotion of some DEI-adjacent concepts in public university teaching.
Of course, advocacy groups are free to call for Princeton to take action to remove, or keep, the book in the course, and to vociferously criticize its content. That’s the sort of “more speech” approach a culture of free expression requires. Princeton’s administrators appear to have stood firm by declining to interfere in a faculty member’s protected determinations of how to educate and challenge their students – even in the face of coming from authorities as significant as the Israeli government. Standing by the university’s promises of academic freedom reassures faculty their administration will support their rights.
As FIRE’s Sarah McLaughlin pointed out, foreign governments exerting pressure on college campuses is nothing new. From a Turkish diplomat objecting to a forum held at Columbia University to Chinese consular officials demanding the cancellation of events with the Dalai Lama at Smith College to the Indian High Commissioner to Australia interfering with academic research, government officials have long sought to control the narrative in higher education. Administrators must swiftly reject such efforts. Rewarding governmental interference will signal to officials that it’s a sufficiently effective tactic that it can — and will — be employed again.
When faculty experience violation of their pedagogical autonomy from either ideological side, free expression loses. We commend Princeton for standing up for academic freedom, and will be watching to ensure the university continues to do so.
This article has been updated to reflect the fact that the Princeton Principles for a Campus Culture of Free Inquiry are not endorsed or authored by Princeton University, but are rather the product of an on-campus program.