STATEMENT ON ACADEMIC FREEDOM

March 2, 2005


The Social Concerns Committee is extremely concerned about recent well-publicized events concerning academic freedom that threaten faculty, including academic administration, with loss of position or tenure for making unpopular comments about sensitive issues of national importance. The role of the University is to provide a venue for the exchange and transmission of ideas. That the communication of these ideas engages, provokes, or angers a segment or even a majority of the population emphasizes its importance. As educators and members of a free and democratic society, we have a responsibility to provide a safe atmosphere for debate and discussion. A diversity of views and interpretations enhances an understanding and deeper knowledge of the world, making us all better citizens. Recent events, such as public opinion makers calling for legislation to limit academic freedom, or the dismissal of faculty or academic administrators for making unpopular observations or defending those who make such observations, may illustrate a weakening of the trust between faculty and institutions of higher learning. This seems to be particularly true in the politically delicate national atmosphere of post-9/11 or in addressing the cause of the underrepresentation of certain groups such as women in the sciences. The academic community must not engage in the overt or covert silencing of divergent or unpopular voices in response to public pressure and must uphold its responsibility to the greater good in the long term, despite immediate pressures and unpopularity.

The Social Concerns Committee supports the institutional defense of the free and open exchange of ideas and knowledge, and of expressions of diverse views in a civil manner by faculty, students, and staff both within and outside of the academy.

The Social Concerns Committee therefore urges the University Senate and the President on behalf of the Regents to formally reaffirm the support of academic freedom and to condemn the silencing of diverse opinions and views on nationally sensitive issues.


DISCUSSION:

Although the University of Minnesota is on record as supporting academic freedom, such fundamental principles must be strongly reaffirmed periodically. This is especially true when the national climate seems to be shifting to be less tolerant of unpopular opinions or even research that challenges deeply held ideas. For this reason, the Social Concerns Committee urges the Senate to reaffirm its support for Academic Freedom and to request a strong reaffirmation from the Regents.

This statement has been spurred by events such as the furor over comments made by Larry Summers, President of Harvard, in which he speculated that a reason for the underrepresentation of women in the mathematics and “hard” science fields might be inherent biological differences, as well as Ward Churchill’s statements concerning the culpability of the U.S. in the 9/11 attacks. Churchill has been removed from his position as chair of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado and termination of his tenured position has been called for by Colorado politicians and some media personalities. Summers has been severely chastised and his repeated apologies may, in part, keep him from being dismissed. These are two examples have captured the attention of the media and the public. For a number of reasons, they are perhaps not the easiest examples to submit in defense of academic freedom, yet the strength of our commitment is measured by our defense of those making controversial statements with which we do not agree. More chilling examples include faculty being suspected of links to terrorism or of being activists for the “wrong” political cause, as illustrated by the University of South Florida’s dismissal of tenured professor Sami al-Arian for statements made on the O’Reilly show in early 2002 and the State Department’s recent decision to deny Dora Maria Tellez admission to the U.S. to take an appointment at Harvard as a result of her involvement in the Nicaraguan Sandinista movement.

We are also greatly concerned about attempts to coerce the academic community into conformity with current norms. Granting agencies such as the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation have added new anti-terrorism language which top research universities believe will stifle research and impinge on academic freedom. They argue that the language of the grant requirements is overly broad and may mean that any statement made on their campuses could be interpreted as pro-terrorist. Several states, including Minnesota, are considering legislation to limit free speech in college classrooms and on college campuses. This will have a chilling effect on the educational process that takes place through the civil expression of diverse stances, interpretations and viewpoints.

Approved April 4, 2005