Academic Freedom Under Siege

06/01/2015 12:08 am ET | Updated May 31, 2016

Six weeks ago, Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro wrote a fine op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he offered a ringing endorsement of academic freedom. As he observed, a university must have "a compelling reason to punish anyone -- student, faculty member, staff member -- for expressing his or her views, regardless of how repugnant you might find those views." Indeed, he added, "freedom of speech doesn't amount to much unless it is tested," and if freedom of speech isn't aggressively protected "on college campuses, where self-expression is so deeply valued, why expect it to matter elsewhere?"

It is therefore both surprising and disappointing that Northwestern University recently found itself embroiled in two embarrassing violations of the core principles of academic freedom. Sadly, a university that should be a national leader in promoting and protecting these values allowed itself to lose sight of its very reason for being.

The first of these controversies began a little over a year ago. Atrium is a journal published by Northwestern University's Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program. Each issue focuses on a different theme, and each contributor is expected to explore the theme "in different, thought-provoking ways." The Winter 2014 issue of Atrium, which was edited by Professor Alice Dreger, included a series of lively articles on the theme of "Bad Girls."

One of the articles, written by William Peace, then the 2014 Jeannette K. Watson Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at Syracuse University, was titled "Head Nurses." In this essay, Peace, who is disabled, told the story of how 36 years earlier a young woman nurse, with whom he had grown close, provided oral sex to him during rehabilitation in order to address his deep concerns that, after a severe health problem left him paralyzed, he could no longer be sexually active.

Apparently, Peace's essay, which was written and edited in a responsible, mature, and thoughtful manner, so upset the authorities at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine that they ordered the story removed from the online version of Atrium. This act of blatant censorship, in direct contravention of any plausible understanding of academic freedom, remained in place for fourteen months, over the continued objections of Peace and Dreger.

Northwestern finally reversed course only after Peace and Dreger made clear that they would take the matter public if the university did not relent. Presumably, the university's concern was that the inclusion of such an "offensive" article in Atrium might put off some of the university's donors and the hospital's patrons, either because of its acknowledgement of oral sex or because it might be construed as demeaning to women. Neither concern is a justification for censorship. The journal, the issue, and the essay were all squarely within the bounds of academic freedom, and Northwestern University should have stood proudly in support of that principle.

As Bill Peace later noted, "obviously, sexual relations between patients and health care professionals is inappropriate," but "what I object to even more" are those "who are dedicated to branding medical institutions by censoring legitimate scholarship and attempting to erase the lives and experiences that they deem embarrassing."

The second controversy began several months ago when Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis wrote a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she raised important questions about the regulation of student-faculty relationships, the meaning of consent, the procedural irregularities that frequently taint the efforts of colleges and universities to address such issues, and the messy and destructive lawsuits that often follow.

Kipnis' article is a serious, provocative, and valuable contribution to the ongoing debate about these often difficult and vexing issues. Among other things, Kipnis charged that some of the recently enacted campus codes dealing with such matters have had the effect of infantilizing women students. This, she reasoned, is not a good thing.

In response to this essay, several students at Northwestern staged a protest demanding "a swift, official condemnation" of the article because they had been made to feel uncomfortable by her thoughts on the subject. One woman student went so far as to describe the essay as "terrifying." Shortly thereafter, a women student who had filed sexual assault charges against a professor at Northwestern filed a Title IX (sex discrimination/sexual harassment) complaint against Kipnis because of the publication.

As Kipnis traces in a powerful new article published this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education, for the past several months she has been subjected to a star-chamber proceeding in which outside investigators retained by Northwestern University have sought to determine whether her initial essay somehow constituted unlawful retaliation, "intimidation, threats, coercion, or discrimination" against the student who had previously filed the sexual assault charge against the faculty member at Northwestern.

As anyone who has read Kipnis' initial article can discern, the accusation is ludicrous on its face. An essay that takes aim at the substantive values and procedures employed by universities in their efforts to regulate sexual relationships on campus is not, and cannot rationally be taken to be, an act of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment directed against any particular student who may have filed such a complaint.

What Northwestern should have done in the face of such a complaint was to dismiss it as quickly and decisively as possible and to reaffirm the fundamental right of members of the university community to write, speak, argue, and complain openly and vigorously about matters of public concern. Instead, Northwestern put Kipnis through months of "investigation" for doing nothing more than writing an interesting and provocative article in a journal of considerable repute.

It was only after Kipnis went public in her second article this week that Northwestern finally informed her that the charges against her were unfounded. As evidenced in both of these situations, it seems, not surprisingly, that the best way to get universities to stand up for academic freedom is to call them out publicly on their lack of commitment to the principles for which they are supposed to stand.

In fairness, I have to say that, at least in the Kipnis incident, this is not all Northwestern's fault. The Department of Education has run roughshod over colleges and universities in recent years by demanding, on pain of loss of federal funds, that these institutions take extreme measures, often inconsistent with basic notions of due process, to deal with complaints of sexual abuse. But this is not much of an excuse, because the Kipnis case was not an instance in which she was accused of sexually abusing anyone. She was accused, rather, of writing an article that upset some students. Turning that into a federal case is beyond the pale.

Northwestern, and other universities, must have the courage to live up to President Schapiro's ringing declaration that a university must have "a compelling reason to punish anyone -- student, faculty member, staff member -- for expressing his or her views, regardless of how repugnant you might find those views." That is, after all, what makes a university a university.