Should Faculty Be Punished for Publicly Criticizing the Institutions Where They Teach?

Posted in: Education

The academic year 2023-24 was a really tough one for American higher education generally and for many colleges and universities in particular. Following the October 7 attack in Israel and the outbreak of the war in Gaza, colleges and universities across the country found themselves caught up in the political crosshairs of our national culture wars.

Just when we might have thought that things would quiet down, academics find themselves caught up in a new controversy, this one about whether faculty have a duty to be loyal to the places that employ them. If that duty exists, does it mean that faculty should be punished for publicly criticizing the places where they work or allying themselves with outside groups seeking to shape the internal policies and practices of those places?

This controversy got started on June 15 when Lawrence Bobo, Dean of Social Science and the W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University, published a provocative op-ed in the Harvard Crimson entitled “Faculty Speech Must Have Its Limits.”

Bobo argued that it is “outside the bounds of acceptable professional conduct for a faculty member to excoriate University leadership, faculty, staff, or students with the intent to arouse external intervention into University business.” He went on to suggest that “the broad publication of such views cross(es) a line into sanctionable violations of professional conduct.”

The Boston Globe reported that “The backlash [to Bobo’s op ed] has been swift, and it has united, at least for the moment, pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian faculty members.”

As former Harvard President Lawrence Summers posted on X, “It takes something extraordinary to bring me into agreement with Israel demonizing faculty like Walter Johnson. That is what Harvard Dean Lawrence Bobo has done with his call for punishing faculty who publicly challenge university decisions.”

“I cannot understand,” Summers continued, “how someone…who believes in punishing dissent can be allowed to set faculty salaries, decide on promotions or be involved in faculty discipline. How can it be according to Harvard leaders that it is fine to call for an end to Israel as a Jewish state but not to criticize the University administration?”

The Globe quoted another Harvard professor who said, “The suggestion that members of an institution should be punished for criticizing that institution represents an authoritarian mindset, with no place in a university.”

This authoritarian mindset is not unique to Bobo or to Harvard. As Timothy Kaufman-Osborn argues, universities everywhere are taking on a more “autocratic character.”

And Bobo is not alone in thinking that “Although academic freedom should be ‘treated as a defining value’ by universities, it surely should not serve as a license for an academic to criticize with total impunity the university that employs them.”

Still the controversy sparked by Bobo’s op ed was the last thing that Harvard needed. It was, after all, one of the places that took the biggest hit in 2023-24.

It started last June when the university found itself on the losing side when the United States Supreme Court struck down its affirmative action program.

Then, in January, Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, was forced to resign in the aftermath of her testimony before a congressional committee. The campus also found itself in turmoil over its responses, or lack thereof, to incidences of anti-Semitism.

This spring, as the New York Times reported, “Applications to Harvard College were down this year, even as many other highly selective schools hit record highs.” Finally, an article in Boston City Lights captured the flavor of what this year has been like when for that great university when it asked “Why Harvard University is failing at everything.”

But, as the responses to Bobo’s op-ed suggest, he struck a nerve. What he said goes to the heart of what a university is and what it means to be a faculty member employed in a place whose policies or actions they find disagreeable or repugnant.

It also raises an age-old problem. How should members of an organization react when they think that the organization of which they are a part has gone off the rails?

Fifty years ago, the famous economist A.O. Hirschman wrote about this question in his influential book, Exit, Voice and Loyalty. In such a situation, Hirschman said, people can exercise their option to “exit” and find a new organizational home.

Alternatively, they can use what Hirschmann called “voice.” They can communicate their dissatisfaction both within and outside of the organization to prompt reforms and changes in policy.

Voice, Hirschmann noted, is by nature political and at times “confrontational.” Yet voice may be an important sign of loyalty and commitment to an organization.

I think Bobo would agree. But he wants to draw a bright line delineating the limits of voice in the university.

Voice, in his view, is acceptable up to a point. “Academic departments, faculty meetings, town halls, and campus publications,” Bobo wrote, “should be regular forums for participation in University governance.”

But, he argued, “A faculty member’s right to free speech does not amount to a blank check to engage in behaviors that plainly incite external actors—be it the media, alumni, donors, federal agencies, or the government—to intervene in Harvard’s affairs.”

Bobo targeted faculty with what he called “an external stature that also opens to them much broader platforms for potential advocacy.” He singled out for special criticism “the appallingly rough manner in which prominent affiliates, including one former University president, publicly denounced Harvard’s students and present leadership.”

And Bobo insists that it is not “an ordinary act of free speech” when such faculty “repeatedly denounce the University, its students, fellow faculty, or leadership.”

As he sees it, neither academic freedom nor free speech bar imposing punitive consequences when such speakers make “strategic choices of targets” and go beyond “proper or allowable modes of engagement.”

Bobo makes a fair point when he calls on his colleagues to “exercise good professional judgment” in what they say about the universities in which they work and to consider whether what they say, “would seriously harm the University and its independence.” Having a right to criticize does not exempt anyone from exercising good judgment about whom or what to criticize or when to exercise that right.

But Bobo goes too far when he says that faculty who engage in speech that “would seriously harm the University and its independence,” should not “escape sanction.”

What Bobo said is a reminder that, as Keith Whittington observes, “it is not obvious why the vital interest of the university in fostering high-quality teaching and scholarship is enhanced when professors get into heated political arguments with members of the general public…” about what goes on in the places they teach.

Obvious or not, Whittington insists that it is in the vital interest of universities to tolerate those heated arguments.

He is right to say that “colleges and universities need to protect such speech not because it is central to academic freedom as such but because failing to protect the right of faculty members to say controversial things in public will tend to undermine the freedom for scholarship and teaching that we most value.” This is also true when what they say is critical of the colleges and universities where they teach.

Indeed, as Zach Greenberg, from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression observes, faculty are often the best positioned to criticize their universities because they see, and reckon with, the institutions’ flaws up close. Penalizing speech intended to “incite external actors” and critics of universities, as Bobo suggests, could create a chilling effect because faculty “might be unable to predict the public response to their statements.”

In the end, I say, loyalty, yes. Silence, no.

Let’s all exercise good judgment about when and how we criticize the places we teach, sure. But sanctions, discipline, punishment—absolutely not.

The great task of universities is to cultivate a professoriate “willing to speak its mind on any topic.” This includes tolerating faculty who speak their mind in ways that make it harder for those who administer those places to do the vital work they were called on to do in 2023-24 and will be called on to do in the future.

Posted in: Education

Tags: Academic Freedom

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