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Northwestern’s Academic Freedom

By John K. Wilson

In February, an ad hoc committee of the Northwestern University faculty senate issued a report addressing the cases of Laura Kipnis and the censorship of Atrium magazine.

The report observed that Northwestern has changed its policies to allow for dismissal of dubious accusations without a full investigation. The report recommended an apology over the Atrium’s censorship and noted, “The university’s claim that having public-relations staff veto scholarly editorial decisions is ‘customary for academic journals’ is preposterous and outrageous.”

The report proposed a new rule: “Neither administrators nor public relations staff may participate in the editing of journals edited by faculty or students, nor have any control over the content of those journals.” This is generally a good idea, but it’s far too broad.

What if students choose to ask a staffer to help edit a story? That should be up to the students (and the administrator) to decide. It’s also very common for staff to be hired to do editing work on academic journals. And what if a faculty member is editor of an important journal, and then is asked to be an interim department chair or other administrative position? It’s not clear how “administrator” gets defined.

The ad hoc committee’s rule is also not broad enough. For example, under this rule, administrators are still free to take control of a university-owned journal away from controversial faculty and turn it over to a more sympathetic professor (or even students), as long as they don’t personally edit it. That’s obviously not what should happen.

It might be better to make the rule something more like this: “Administrators cannot impose editorial control or demands on journals run by students or faculty.”

The report also recommends a new policy for harassment, that speech in “an academic, educational or research context” cannot be harassment unless it meets the definition and is also “targeted at a specific person or persons, is abusive, and serves no bona fide academic purpose.” This provision, taken from the University of Chicago’s policy, is a little too broad for me.

For example, during a class, a professor could make all kinds of sexual compliments directed at a student and ask her out on a date. This is arguably not “abusive” (which typically only means negative comments) but nevertheless should meet a reasonable definition of sexual harassment. The term “abusive” is a very vague requirement. The directedness requirement is also generally correct, but not always good as an absolute rule. One can imagine a professor expressing all kinds of sexual comments that are abusive and not relevant to the class that are not directed at specific person or persons that could be harassing (for example, repeatedly saying that all women in general are stupid and inferior).

The bona fide academic purpose exemption is a good idea, but the remaining rules are just too broad, even if they might help prevent some bad interpretations of harassment that endanger academic freedom.

Northwestern (with the faculty senate) should establish a permanent committee (made up of knowledgeable faculty) on academic freedom, for the administration and faculty to consult, and to evaluate cases. The Faculty Senate does have committees on Cause (for disciplinary matters) and Faculty Rights and Responsibilities, but these don’t specifically address academic freedom (nor do they go beyond faculty issues). In addition to this, Northwestern needs an AAUP chapter to keep the pressure on the administration to make reforms.