Northwestern University Largely Silent as Questions Multiply About Treatment of Faculty Journal

June 19, 2015

As we announced in this week’s press release, FIRE has intervened at Northwestern University following its censorship of the bioethics faculty publication Atrium and the creation of a new oversight committee to screen its content.

Atrium, as we previously wrote, came under scrutiny after publishing an issue featuring an essay in which its author described how, in 1978, he had received consensual oral sex from a nurse while hospitalized for paralysis. The offending issue was removed from Atrium’s website for more than a year. FIRE has not yet received a response to our letter to Northwestern calling on the university to stick up for its faculty’s academic freedom, and Northwestern has remained largely silent in the press so far, even as new and disturbing information about the fight over Atrium comes to light.

Among the most notable revelations is the role the controversy over Atrium played in professor Kristi Kirschner’s decision to leave Northwestern. As Inside Higher Ed reports:

Kristi Kirschner, now an adjunct professor of disability and human development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said she resigned her faculty position Northwestern in December 2014 due in part to the incident. Formerly a clinical professor in medical humanities and bioethics at Feinberg, she also wrote an article in the “Bad Girls” issue of Atrium.

Kirschner said she’d read Peace’s essay prior to publication and found it “provocative” but worthy of publication. She said it touched on themes similar to those of the 2012 film “The Sessions” about sexual surrogacy, and so hoped it would help further the discussion about “how the medical profession, and rehabilitation in particular, deals with sexuality and disability.” Moreover, she said, Atrium had become “emblematic” of the medical humanities and bioethics program’s non-traditional and multidisciplinary approach, in that it was “absolutely unique, edgy, scholarly, artistic and reflective of the issues of the time.”

Of the censorship, she said via email, “These events had a chilling effect, antithetical to the idea of the university. Universities thrive when there is academic freedom and vigorous debate. Hospitals and clinical care thrive when systems operate as well-oiled machines. One is about disruption and creativity, the other about conforming. The branding movement will undoubtedly favor the latter, in service of fund-raising and reputational scores.”

Alan Cubbage, a spokesperson for Northwestern, has largely declined to address the specifics of the case, while also attempting to clarify that the university is “strongly committed to the principles of free expression and academic freedom.” Cubbage seemed to downplay the role of the new review committee—while at the same time confirming that a new committee was indeed being put in place. Cubbage’s statement claims that “the magazine now has an editorial board of faculty members and others, as is customary for academic journals.”

Kirschner and Alice Dreger, who guest-edited the controversial Atrium issue in question, would contest this characterization. The Huffington Post’s Tyler Kingkade reports that Dreger and Kirschner “both told HuffPost that future issues of the magazine will now be subject to approval from a new committee made up of senior administrators and public relations staff from the university.” Kingkade also gives extra weight to fears that “brand” concerns played an outsized role in Atrium’s censorship, noting:

Emails obtained by The Huffington Post also show administrators expressing concern that the article could threaten a “branding agreement” with the medical school and the hospital, and that it could suggest the hospital doesn’t value nurses or that it condones sexual relationships between patients [and] health care workers.

The Huffington Post, like Inside Higher Ed, got no further information from Northwestern when it pressed for specifics. Kingkade wryly notes, “The university declined follow-up requests for answers to HuffPost’s actual questions.”

It’s The Chicago Tribune, however, that carries potentially the most dispiriting news of all—that Atrium may not resume publication as a result of the demands for administrative review. They note:

“My department decided not to participate in” the prior review process, said Dreger, who works for the university part time and recently published a book on academic freedom. “I have to worry about my own university pulling my work because they are afraid of upsetting someone.”

University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone, meanwhile, captures the scope and seriousness of the academic freedom violations perpetrated by Northwestern:

“[T]his magazine is edited by faculty as an academic journal,” he said in an interview with the Tribune. “That is something where academic freedom applies full force. The idea that … someone in the institution thought it would be embarrassing or problematic, that is a real intrusion on academic freedom.”

If this controversy spells the demise of Atrium, Northwestern will only have itself to blame for its illiberal and wholly unnecessary actions against the journal. We hope more answers will be forthcoming from the university and will continue reporting on this case.

Schools:  Northwestern University

Cases:  Northwestern University: Censorship of Faculty-Produced Bioethics Journal with “Bad Girls” Theme