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Sen. Chuck Grassley presses universities about commitment to academic freedom

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Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, sent letters last week to Harvard University, Duke University, Villanova University, and Sarah Lawrence College asking the institutions to respond to the Committee about troubling incidents on their respective campuses that might endanger academic freedom. 

Grassley detailed his concerns in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week: 

“Students who can think critically for themselves are best equipped to tackle the most difficult challenges we face in our democracy,” he wrote. “College professors must be free to teach in order for this to happen.”

Sen. Grassley’s statement announcing the letters highlights the incidents in question:

  •    Duke University did not renew the contract of a popular, non-tenured professor, Evan Charney, on its campus after the university’s administration determined that he had a “tendency to provoke negative reactions, and perhaps harm, … some students in the classroom due to his confrontational teaching style — a style that had a tendency to be polarizing among students.” The award-winning professor taught in Duke’s public policy school for 20 years prior to his contract not being renewed. Hundreds of his former students have signed petitions or sent letters in support of Prof. Charney asking the university to reinstate him.
  •       Harvard University declined to continue its relationship with Prof. Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. and his wife, Prof. Stephanie Robinson, as faculty deans of Harvard’s undergraduate house, Winthrop House. The decision appears to have been made in response to protests on campus regarding Sullivan’s having agreed to join the legal defense team for an unpopular criminal defendant, namely Harvey Weinstein.
  •       The office of a tenured professor at Sarah Lawrence College was vandalized after he wrote an op-ed, published in the New York Times, on the subject of political influence of school administrators on campus. Media reports called into question the college’s support for the professor after such vandalism and even indicate the administration may have taken a blame-the-victim approach to such an incident
  •    Two Villanova University professors recently wrote an op-ed, published in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that academia has gotten to the point where professors are afraid to teach even the slightest controversial material, such as Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain, out of fear of offending students, therefore losing academic freedoms for “human resources” reasons.

FIRE’s Executive Director Robert Shibley provided a comment to the Harvard Crimson about Sen. Grassley’s letter. His full statement reads: 

Senator Grassley is correct: Protecting free speech and academic freedom on campus is a major public concern, and these core democratic commitments are threatened on too many campuses. Congress must always consider the implications of its oversight activities on academic freedom. Senator Grassley appears to have done so here; the senator’s questions echo those that academic freedom advocates have already been asking about Harvard’s treatment of Professor Sullivan and what it says about the climate of freedom on its campus. Accountability on matters of academic freedom is in short supply at prestigious private institutions, and it is FIRE’s hope that Harvard, Duke, Villanova, and Sarah Lawrence will take this opportunity to provide the candid answers that have so far not been forthcoming.

Sen. Grassley’s letters state that the Senate Finance Committee has “exclusive jurisdiction within the U.S. Senate over matters of federal taxation,” and that the committee is making sure “that entities exempt from tax are fulfilling their tax-exempt purposes.” Each of the colleges that received letters are tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations.

FIRE will keep readers updated about the universities’ responses.

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