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Defending Academic Freedom in Higher Education and Medicine

The success of the academy requires academic freedom and tolerance for viewpoint diversity. These critical values are under increasing threat.

· 12 min read
Defending Academic Freedom in Higher Education and Medicine
Photo by Pascal Bernardon on Unsplash

The essay that follows is adapted from a talk the author delivered at the AAP (Association of American Physicians) President’s Dinner in Chicago on 5 April 2024.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to clarify details about Carole Hooven's position at Harvard University, the content of her interview on Fox News, and the subsequent reaction from various parties. The article also now more accurately describes the circumstances surrounding her departure from the university.

During a long career in the field of academic medicine, I have of course always been aware that free speech and academic freedom are critical to the success of the medical and medical research communities. But I would have viewed a claim that those values were under threat as bizarre. Sadly, I am now greatly concerned about the state of academic freedom in higher education and medicine, and I’m dedicating substantial time and effort to understanding and addressing this issue at Harvard and nationally. In the process, I have discovered a growing number of colleagues across many disciplines who share my concerns, but for those who aren’t quite sure what I am talking about, I will present a few stories that helped lead me to my current concerns. I will begin by defining free speech and academic freedom, which at their roots are straightforward, but can become complicated in real-world situations.

In the US, free speech is protected by the First Amendment, which restricts the ability of government to limit citizens’ speech, with exceptions for speech that incites violence, represents a true threat to safety by narrowly defined criteria, or constitutes fraud or defamation. Hate speech, even if vile, is protected under the First Amendment. First Amendment protections don’t apply to private institutions, like many universities, though most universities voluntarily establish free speech rights for their communities. 

Academic freedom is a more limited concept, protecting scholars, researchers, and educators from censorship, discipline, or retaliation by their institutions. Academic freedom is essential to the pursuit and transmission of knowledge and to critical thinking.

Of course, freedom of speech and academic freedom don’t imply freedom from criticism. Faculty scholarship and speech can, will, and should be judged by colleagues in the field, and such judgments will influence decisions about research funding, promotions, and recognition. But the success of the academy also requires tolerance for viewpoint diversity among faculty and the ability to engage in respectful conversations across areas of disagreement, free from ad hominem attacks.

I believe these critical values are under increasing threat. The symptoms are numerous, but include: cancellations or attempted cancellations of faculty for claimed offences against specific viewpoints and values; the consequent self-silencing by faculty who fear the consequences of speaking out about their concerns; and administrative bloat and incursions that police speech.

Before giving a few brief case studies from Harvard, I will mention two organizations that are working in this space. The first is Heterodox Academy, formed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, on whose board I have sat since 2017. Its byline is “Great minds don’t always think alike,” and its mission is to promote—from a politically neutral position—open inquiry, viewpoint diversity and constructive disagreement in higher education and research. It has over 5000 faculty members from all 50 US states and many countries.

The second is the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, formed in April 2023, now with 180 members from across all Harvard Schools, including many distinguished scholars in medicine, law, philosophy, government, public health, and psychology. I am a co-president along with psychologist Steven Pinker, lawyer Jeannie Suk Gerson, philosopher Ned Hall, and former dean of Harvard College Harry Lewis. Our goals are similar to those of Heterodox Academy, but our focus is on policies, procedures, and culture at Harvard. Our group has attracted recent attention in the turbulent period following 7 October, particularly because of our engagement with members of the Harvard Corporation.

Among many recent cases at Harvard that reflect the issues that concern my colleagues and me, I will highlight three.

First is the case of Ronald Sullivan, the Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Professor Sullivan is a leading theorist in criminal law, criminal procedure, trial practice and techniques, legal ethics, and race theory. He is the faculty director of the Harvard Criminal Justice Institute and the Harvard Trial Advocacy Workshop. Over the course of his career, Sullivan has merged legal theory and practice in unique and cutting-edge ways and is sought out to represent clients in cases that many in the legal community deem almost impossible. He successfully represented the family of Michael Brown in reaching a settlement with the city of Ferguson on a wrongful death claim, even after the US Department of Justice declined to prosecute the case. In 2009, he was the first African American to be named a faculty dean (formerly called Master) at a Harvard House (Winthrop House), living there with his wife and children.

In 2019, Sullivan agreed to advise the legal team of Harvey Weinstein, prior to the trial at which he was sentenced to life in prison. Sullivan told the Harvard community that he accepted this role on the principle that all accused criminals deserve the best criminal defence, a principle to which he had devoted his professional career. Upon hearing this, a group of students in Winthrop House demanded his removal as faculty dean, on the grounds that his presence now made them feel unsafe. There were acts of vandalism in protest against Sullivan. The college responded by conducting an investigation into his role as dean—despite the fact that his term had recently been extended for 5 years—and concluded that he should resign. Many Harvard Law professors signed a letter supporting him, but no senior leaders at Harvard defended him, and he was forced to resign. Instead of an important lesson about how a fair legal system is designed to work, the lesson of the day was that student claims of feeling hurt or harmed can force terrible decisions.

The second case is that of Carole Hooven, at the time a lecturer and co-director of undergraduate education in the department of Human Evolutionary Biology. Her expertise was the role of hormones in the behavior of humans and other animals. Her teaching was highly rated, and she turned one of her courses into a book: T, The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us. The book is an extraordinary piece of science writing, both factual and empathetic.

Early in her book tour, Hooven did a short interview on a Fox News show, during which she provided a scientific definition of sex, and stated that there were two sex categories, male and female. The next day, the graduate student Director of the DEI task force in her department posted a tweet stating that Carole’s views were dangerous and transphobic, and this was picked up by news outlets across the globe, including in the US, Europe and Australia. The Harvard Crimson student paper rapidly piled on, as did members of the Harvard Graduate Student Union. Faculty members told her privately that they supported her, but that they couldn’t publicly defend her—in some cases, because they feared for their own positions. Administrators who failed to publicly defend her included her chair, who had enthusiastically blurbed her book, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (then Claudine Gay), and the Harvard President. Her life in the department became miserable. She became clinically depressed, and soon after, retired from her position. The failure of academic and administrative leaders to defend her was shocking.

Carole Hooven: Why I Left Harvard
After I stated banal facts about human biology, I found myself caught in a DEI web, without the support to do the job I loved. The only way out was to leave it.

The third case is that of Tyler VanderWeele, the Loeb Professor of Epidemiology in the Departments of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Director of the Human Flourishing Program and Co-Director of the Initiative on Health, Religion, and Spirituality at Harvard University. Tenured in his early thirties, he led the required biostatistics course for Master of Public Health students. VanderWeele holds degrees from Oxford, Pennsylvania, and Harvard in mathematics, philosophy, theology, finance, and biostatistics. His methodological research is focused on distinguishing between association and causation in the biomedical and social sciences.

Tyler is a devout Catholic, though his religious beliefs are unrelated to his scholarly and educational work. In 2015, along with many other academics, he signed an amicus brief against the Obergefell case in the Supreme Court. When that case was decided, he accepted the verdict, and the question of gay marriage never played a role in his academic life.

In 2023, a graduate student identified Tyler as a signatory to the amicus brief. After conferring with a DEI official, this individual sent out a blast email to the biostatistics and epidemiology communities stating that Tyler was opposed to gay marriage, and on that basis, had violated the core values of the school; he should not be allowed to teach, and should possibly lose his faculty position. This conversation spread like wildfire. As with Carole Hooven, Tyler was privately assured that all would be fine, as he was protected by academic freedom. But once again, no one at the School of Public Health, including the department chairs and deans, would publicly defend him. Instead, he was asked to make a series of visits to the school’s departments to explain what he had done, and to express regret for the pain he had allegedly caused. Despite many concerns, he did this. He also stayed away from his office for a number of weeks, fearing confrontation with angry students.

The Threat to Academic Freedom: From Anecdotes to Data
The moral community is now self-reproducing. It is also self-radicalising.

Eventually, the issue subsided, and he has now written about his experience. In one piece, he asks whether a faculty member with known religious beliefs would now be unwelcome in some schools of public health. His experience, and the increasingly politicised environment in many such schools, suggests that this is a reasonable question.

These cases—selected from many more—were initiated by a small number of student activists, working with administrators, who used blast emails and social media to attack a highly respected faculty member, causing that person to experience severe suffering and stress. Even though these faculty were supposedly protected by academic freedom, institutional leaders failed to issue statements—either internal or public—in their defence. Beyond the noxious effects on the personal and professional lives of those concerned, the fact that these leaders failed to come to their defence—and in some cases, actively collaborated in the attacks on them—sent a clear message. This has created a vicious cycle of self-silencing that suppresses the robust engagement on difficult and controversial issues that the search for truth requires.

These incidents all happened within the university community. But equally serious attacks on academic freedom are also arising from outside the university. For example, some US state governments are taking actions to directly influence curricula, programmes, and hiring practices in state universities over which they have governance and budgetary authority. In several cases, the line between necessary oversight and harmful violations of academic freedom has clearly been breached. In response to campus antisemitism, overly broad Congressional investigations and subpoenas may soon threaten many universities’ tax status, student loans, and research funding.

As happens too often in today’s polarised political environment, many people see only one side of this issue. Those on the right focus on campus events, practices, and ideologies that they see—sometimes correctly—as biased and harmful, and mistakenly support employing state power to move these in their preferred direction. Many on the left assert that claims of threats to academic freedom by campus policies and culture are exaggerated and can be dismissed as a moral panic. They focus their concerns on the real dangers of politically motivated interventions by state or federal government.

But the threats from both within and outside the academy are serious, and defending academic freedom requires aggressively countering both. To recognize or emphasize only one of these threats undermines academic freedom by rendering concerns about academic freedom subservient to politics.

Looking Back on a Decade of Cancel Culture
A new book traces the rising threat to free speech on American campuses—and explains how students, teachers, administrators, and parents can become part of the solution.

So, what might we do to improve this? Here are several recommendations:

We should develop and implement more explicit university-wide policies
on freedom of speech, paying close attention to content neutrality, to prevent ideologically based restrictions of the kind that have arisen on many campuses.

We should develop and implement more explicit and reliably enforced university-wide policies to limit interference with university activities.

We should adopt a policy of neutrality or restraint to reverse the now common practice of presidents, provosts, deans, and department chairs issuing statements on behalf of their units on controversial political and social issues. Such statements typically go beyond the expertise of those issuing them. They never satisfy everyone, create needless controversy, and waste time that should be dedicated to primary leadership responsibilities. They also discourage faculty and students from expressing contrary views, chilling the climate for free expression.

The initial goal of DEI to promote equal opportunity is supported by almost everyone, but the role of DEI initiatives in higher education has become controversial. There are important differences between the initial goals of DEI and its flawed implementation. One area in which this is salient is in the use of mandatory DEI statements in faculty hiring and promotion. An industry has arisen to assist applicants in writing such statements—thus undermining their integrity; they are used in very different ways in different schools, departments, and disciplines; in many cases, they allow administrators, rather than faculty, to determine who is hired; and how they are used in practice is almost always non-transparent. Most importantly, they are a form of required speech and opinion that violates norms of academic freedom.

As Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy has stated in a recent Harvard Crimson op-ed:

By overreaching, by resorting to compulsion, by forcing people to adopt a political line, by imposing ideological (even rhetorical litmus tests), by facilitating insincerity, and by creating a tight, circular mode of discourse that is seemingly impervious to self-questioning, the DEI regime is discrediting itself. It would be hard to overstate the degree to which a substantial number of academics in Harvard and beyond feel an intense resentment against the DEI enterprise because of features that are perhaps most evident in the demand for DEI statements. I am a scholar on the left committed to struggles for social justice. The realities surrounding mandatory DEI statements, however, make me wince. The practice of demanding them ought to be abandoned. 
Mandatory DEI Statements Are Ideological Pledges of Allegiance. Time to Abandon Them. | Opinion | The Harvard Crimson
By requiring academics to profess — and flaunt — faith in DEI, the proliferation of diversity statements poses a profound challenge to academic freedom.

As we pursue such reforms, we must simultaneously resist government actions that violate academic freedom. This is truly a both/and situation.

In medicine and biomedical research, these threats, though less pervasive, are increasingly prevalent. At Harvard Medical School, I have both observed and been told that frank and open discussions on the topic of sex and gender are now extremely difficult if they in any way challenge specific narratives. I know of faculty who have chosen to discontinue teaching in this area for fear of student opposition to biologically accurate terminology regarding biological sex

Likewise, though we need to identify and counter racism in medical practice and education, some efforts to introduce antiracist curricula and practices incorporate elements that are unsupported by data, are highly politicized and extreme, and may cause more harm than good. Criticising such practices has proven very difficult, as activists, administrators, and journal editors often resist any efforts to question their actions.

Free speech and academic freedom surely still exist, and in some domains, the threats I have recounted may seem limited or even non-existent. But the threats are real, increasingly prevalent, and too many faculty, students, and leaders are fearful of expressing their concerns. Given how essential academic freedom is to the search for truth in a liberal society, we must be more vigilant in its defence. It’s time to examine these threats and, wherever necessary, we should band together to resist them.

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