Princeton faculty petition threatens free speech, academic freedom

July 8, 2020

At my alma mater, Princeton University, hundreds of faculty, staff, and graduate students have signed a petition demanding the university “take immediate concrete and material steps to openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive on its campus.” 

The petition includes a long list of “demands,” several of which stand in direct opposition to Princeton students’ and faculty members’ rights to free speech, academic freedom, and freedom of conscience. (Notably, one of them — a demand that faculty of color receive extra pay and sabbatical time compared to white faculty — is simply illegal.) Princeton’s leadership should categorically reject these illiberal demands and make clear that the fundamental rights of its students and faculty are non-negotiable and will not be subordinated to political expediency.

The most chillingly illiberal demand in the petition asks Princeton to: 

[c]onstitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.

The threat of discipline for speech, research, and publication that is subjectively deemed “racist” by a committee of ideologically motivated Princeton faculty is an anti-intellectual, frontal assault on free speech and academic freedom at Princeton that would shut down entire avenues of inquiry, research, and discussion. How, exactly, would such a committee determine whether faculty expression or research is “racist”? A look at some recent demands for faculty discipline is illustrative. 

Michigan State University professor Steven Hsu, for example, was forced out of his position as senior VP of research and innovation for having commented “in the past on research papers written by other researchers related to differences in intelligence between races and made arguments against diversity in hiring practices.” Hsu told the Lansing State Journal that “Each time I discussed intelligence differences between races (whether on my blog or in an interview) I said there was NOT strong evidence in favor of it,” he said, in the email. “But I did defend the right of researchers to investigate the question.”

University of Chicago professor Harald Uhlig, meanwhile, was preemptively removed from his position as editor of the university’s Journal of Political Economy while the university investigated whether his tweets mocking the idea of defunding the police violated its policies on harassment and discrimination. While Uhlig was ultimately cleared and returned to his position as journal editor, he was fired from his position as a consultant with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago for expressing opinions inconsistent with the bank’s “commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.” 

In a terrific article last month in Inside Higher Ed, University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Zimmerman argued that faculty must rally behind academic freedom in this historic moment — one he compared to 1950s-era efforts to purge universities of Communist-leaning faculty. Zimmerman wrote:

The biggest myth about the McCarthy period is that purges of university faculty were imposed upon an unwilling professoriate. In fact, most American faculty members embraced the campaign to remove Communist or left-leaning colleagues. They took loyalty oaths, condemned “fellow travelers” and did everything else they could to protect the university from its supposed Red enemy.

Noting that universities are “repeating all the same patterns” today, Zimmerman urged his colleagues to stand up for the academic freedom rights of unpopular colleagues: 

Our university leaders are busily issuing new loyalty oaths, declaring allegiance to Black Lives Matter, and everyone else is expected to follow along. That can’t be good for our democracy, or for our universities. It’s not even good for Black Lives Matter! Like any other social movement, BLM can only benefit from a full and free discussion of it.

If met, the Princeton faculty’s demand for a committee to police speech, research, and publication for signs of racism would be the end of academic freedom at the Ivy League university. And while one would hope that any free-minded academics at Princeton would simply leave the university under such oppressive circumstances, it is more likely that, given the challenges of the academic job market (particularly for faculty with dissenting views), they would instead opt for self-censorship.

The petition also demands Princeton implement anti-racism training for the entire faculty and administration, with a focus on training that is “challenging” and “necessarily moves participants through stages of vulnerability, productive discomfort, and reflection.” The type of training that the petition’s signatories are demanding has all of the hallmarks of thought reform, intended not only to share the university’s views with participants but also to push participants to conform their own views to a particular ideology. 

The freedom of conscience — that is, the right to have one’s inner thoughts and beliefs free from official intrusion — is a critical corollary of the freedom of speech, and one that the university must take seriously. The training recommended by the petition’s signatories, from the organization Race Forward, represents a particular ideological perspective on race in American society, one that “believes that the root of our current conditions is structural racism” and that we must “effectively shift power for racial justice within our institutions, policies and lives.” Princeton cannot, consistent with the right to freedom of conscience, require faculty to actively participate in a training of this sort, where they are expected to expose their vulnerabilities and make themselves uncomfortable in service of a particular ideology. 

It is noteworthy that these new demands follow almost immediately on the heels of Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber’s announcement — in response to a list of student demands — that the university would remove Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs as well as from Wilson College, an undergraduate residential college. While universities are obviously free to accede to demands from students and faculty that do not infringe on the rights of others, this illustrates the fact that often, such demands are part of a larger effort to remake the university as a whole in ways that do infringe on these rights, and that capitulation to demands made in the name of political expediency will lead not to satisfaction — but only to increasingly illiberal demands. 

The University of Chicago’s famous Kalven Report, issued in 1967 at a time of societal turmoil similar in many ways to today’s, speaks directly to this issue, warning that “[f]rom time to time instances will arise in which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry,” and concluding there should be “a heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political and social issues of the day, or modifying its corporate activities to foster social or political values, however compelling and appealing they may be.” At this time of intense social pressure for universities to express such opinions, Princeton and other universities would be well-served to consider the Kalven Report’s wisdom anew.


Schools:  Princeton University