On Academic Freedom and Civility -- introducing a Lehigh Faculty Forum event (2/16/22)

This panel came together in part because of some recent controversies on Lehigh’s campus, some of which were visible and received media coverage, while others were happening a bit more behind the scenes.

The controversies are actually nothing to be embarrassed about; I tend to think they serve as learning opportunities, both for students and for us as faculty. What do we really think about academic freedom? What can we or should we be able to say in our capacity as representatives of this institution? What’s the difference between what we say in our capacity as teachers and researchers, and what we might say in the public sphere – speaking as private individuals?

Finally, how do we preserve a sense of civility in our debates and disagreements, in light of growing external pressure to frame debates in only the most polarizing terms?

We’re hoping this will be the first of several conversations to address these questions, and I hope we’ll get into it with some specific case studies and examples. (If you have a topic you think we should cover and we don’t get to it tonight, let us know and it might happen the next go-round.)
We’re meeting at a strange time for both academic freedom and civility. Let’s start with civility – we just lived through four years of President Donald Trump! A leader who followed none of the old rules regarding how you talk about your political opponents or critics. He got away with calling Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” in a Presidential debate, with suggesting journalists who disagreed with him should be locked up, and a hundred other things. Can we really return to some semblance of normality after that? One of the disconcerting discoveries of these years has been the realization that there really are no 'grown-ups' out there in our political system who will keep the guardrails from coming off. Then again, maybe that means it's our job to model the behavior we'd like to see?

On the academic freedom question -- the debates have been coming fast and furious. On the one side, there are claims of professors being criticized (and sometimes disciplined) for using a potentially offensive term or politically incorrect language; there’s a good introduction to this phenomenon in The Atlantic, Anne Appelbaum’s “The New Puritans.”

On the other, since 2020 we’ve seen a large array of laws proposed by states designed to regulate what can be said in the classroom; ten states passed these so-called “anti-Critical Race Theory” laws in 2021. Of those, most were aimed at K-12 schools, though of the 10, Idaho, Iowa, and Oklahoma all passed laws last year that also place limits on academic freedoms in the college classroom. Many of the laws explicitly ban particular books, such as The 1619 Project, from being taught. More locally, school districts have been banning books left and right, including everything from the novels of Toni Morrison to Art Spiegelmann’s Holocaust memoir, Maus.

The state of Pennsylvania has an anti-CRT bill under active consideration right now HB 1532, that, though ambiguously worded, could ban college teachers – even at private universities – from assigning works that advocate for reparations for slavery or Affirmative Action. This proposed law also has a clause (several of the bills around the country have the exact same language) allowing for “private cause of action.” In other words, any resident of the state of Pennsylvania who was bothered by what might be taught at Lehigh could sue the university – you wouldn’t have to actually be a student here. Needless to say, if this bill becomes law, it will have a deep chilling effect.

The plan for tonight is as follows – we’ll start with about 45 minutes of faculty talking to one another, before opening the floor for audience questions and comments. We’ve asked faculty not to write down speeches, but rather to meditate on a series of questions related to academic freedom as it relates to their own work and their own experience as scholars and teachers.

For those on Zoom, we do have colleagues who will be reading comments posted in the chat; they’ll relay those questions and comments to us, and we’ll try to address them in turn.