Does academic freedom protect professors espousing white supremacist ideas?
The answer, for the past hundred-and-more years since the founding of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915, has been yes. This is a disturbing realization for anyone who thinks of academic freedom as one of the cornerstones of a free and open society—and who understands how profoundly it is threatened by Republican state legislatures trying to criminalize the teaching of critical race theory (CRT). Also disturbing is the fact that, over the past decade, the concept of academic freedom has been confused—sometimes innocently, sometimes not—with free speech. The result is that even while pusillanimous university administrators remove a professor from his class for using a Chinese term that sounds like the N-word, seriously racist work continues to enjoy protection on the grounds that academic freedom is co-extensive with free speech, and scholars like University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax can call for a “cultural distance nationalism” whose core belief is that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer non-whites.” Indeed, in Wax’s case, this strange idea of academic freedom has permitted her to make claims in public, in a 2017 interview with Glenn Loury, about the academic achievements of Black law students at Penn that her own dean characterized as “false.”*
Wax did not emerge entirely unscathed; she was removed from required first-year law classes, and her misrepresentations of Penn’s Black students were repudiated by her dean. But she remains on the faculty, and she remains a hero on the right and a cause célèbre for libertarians; in 2018, Penn trustee emeritus and law school overseer Paul S. Levy actually resigned in protest over Penn’s decision to remove Wax from those required first-year courses, writing to then-President Amy Gutmann that the decision effectively suppresses “open, robust, and critical debate over differing views of important social issues.”
And then there is the curious case of Bruce Gilley, a colleague of Jennifer Ruth’s at Portland State University. Gilley made a name for himself as the author of the article “THE CASE FOR COLONIALISM,” whose publication by the journal Third World Quarterly in 2017 led to considerable controversy. He has emphatically doubled down since, giving a talk to the German far-right AfD Party about the glories of their colonial past. In 2019, publishing on the website of the National Association of Scholars, he asked, “Was it Good Fortune to be Enslaved by the British Empire?” His answer is yes: “To be Black in America is, historically speaking, to have hit the jackpot.” “For those who came ashore at Jamestown and in the centuries that followed,” Gilley concludes, “being enslaved under the British empire was about as good as it got.” On Twitter, he refers to George Floyd as a “thug” and King Leopold II, whose brutal practices in the Congo Free State resulted in an estimated 10 million deaths, as a “hero.” In a June 30, 2020, tweet, Gilley wrote that the Belgians should apologize to Congo, not for the murder of 10 million Congolese, but for
*not colonizing the King’s estates sooner
*ending colonial rule despite mainstream Congolese opposition to independence
*not arresting or killing Patrice Lumumba sooner
And nothing else.
These remarks are of course protected by the First Amendment. Whether they are also protected by academic freedom is the trickier question—and it is the one we want to ask. The American concept of academic freedom is distinctive insofar as it covers not only research and teaching but also “extramural utterances”—statements beyond research and teaching, including Twitter and podcasts. The idea is that no professor gives up their First Amendment rights as a citizen when they take an academic position. And ever since the infamous Leo Koch case at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1960, in which Koch was fired for writing a letter to the student paper arguing that students should engage in premarital sex, the AAUP has consistently held that faculty should not be fired for extramural speech unless that speech calls into question a professor’s fitness to serve. Ordinarily, that speech has to bear directly on the faculty member’s field of study. The idea is that a historian who is a Holocaust denier is obviously unfit, whereas an electrical engineer who is a Holocaust denier is just a crank. This position makes perfect sense, though few people realize that it entails the unsettling corollary that professors enjoy greater protection for extramural speech when they have no idea what they’re talking about than for speech within the areas of their research and teaching.
So how does this principle guide us with professors espousing white supremacist ideas and defenses of colonialism and slavery when they claim to be speaking and writing on the basis of their scholarly expertise?
When Gilley compares BLM “criminals” to the Red Guards of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, his First Amendment rights protect him. But that’s not the same thing as saying that his claims have the protection of academic freedom. He is not, after all, platforming as an ordinary citizen; he’s doing it, as he says in a tweet on June 16, 2020, “based on my knowledge of Mao’s politics.” This is critical. For here he is saying that his extramural commentary is manifestly an extension of what he considers his area of expertise—the history and politics of various regimes. He’s not staking his rights to this speech on the First Amendment, but on his claim to expertise as a scholar of political science.
Professors like Gilley provoke the question: If we are renaming a college that honors John C. Calhoun (as Yale did in 2017) and taking Woodrow Wilson’s name off a School of Public and International Affairs (as Princeton did in 2020), why are we not rethinking academic freedom for racists? If Princeton were to say, for example, “We are removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from the School of Public and International Affairs, but we will continue to employ and support faculty members who share Wilson’s beliefs about race and eugenics,” surely one would be right to dismiss the renaming as a purely symbolic public relations gesture involving no substantial reckoning with the legacy of eugenics and white supremacy. A more honest and thorough reckoning would ask whether those beliefs have any legitimacy whatsoever, and, if not, why they should continue to be promoted with the imprimatur of a university rather than relegated to the “race realist” fever swamp of the Pioneer Fund.
Most discussions of “free speech on campus” don’t really concern academic freedom; rather, they tend to involve arguments that “cancel culture” and “wokeness” are making it impossible for Charles Murray to get a hearing for what are almost always disingenuously called “controversial ideas.” But some ideas don’t deserve a hearing, and one of the primary roles of the university is to distinguish between those that do—and should continue to be explored and built upon—and those that should not be seriously entertained by any legitimate institution of higher education. Conflating free speech with academic freedom obscures this basic truth.
Regrettably, the AAUP itself has contributed to this conflation—in its 1994 statement, “On Freedom of Expression and Campus Speech Codes,” which concludes with the ringing words, “Free speech is not simply an aspect of the educational enterprise to be weighed against other desirable ends. It is the very precondition of the academic enterprise itself.” The political pressures of the 1990s remain legible today: The AAUP’s response to the advent of speech codes was not merely a response to the advent of speech codes, but to the broader phenomenon of “political correctness” as allegedly instantiated by those speech codes. For us, however, those ringing words ring false. To be sure, some version of free speech is indispensable to the academic enterprise: Universities must be intellectually autonomous from the state, and faculty members intellectually autonomous from university administrators, trustees, and donors. That is the rock on which the AAUP is founded. Students, for their part, may not enjoy academic freedom in the way that faculty do, but must be free to pursue and to contribute to their education in any manner that does not violate or jeopardize the educational mission of the university.
Astonishingly, however, the statement argues that universities violate or jeopardize their mission if they try to adjudicate between good and bad ideas:
An institution of higher learning fails to fulfill its mission if it asserts the power to proscribe ideas—and racial or ethnic slurs, sexist epithets, or homophobic insults almost always express ideas, however repugnant. Indeed, by proscribing any ideas, a university sets an example that profoundly disserves its academic mission.
The “ideas” expressed by slurs and insults are typically limited to the literal terms of the utterance itself. But even more mistaken is the statement’s insistence that “by proscribing any ideas, a university sets an example that profoundly disserves its academic mission.” This dogmatic proscription of proscription suffuses the document, and it is nothing short of bizarre. It manifestly defaults on one of the primary responsibilities of institutions of higher education. “A college or university,” it claims, “sets a perilous course if it seeks to differentiate between high-value and low-value speech.” On the contrary, it is one of the primary functions of a college or university, if not the primary function, to distinguish between high-value and low-value speech. This is what professors do every time they grade student papers, write student recommendations, evaluate the work of their colleagues (especially for tenure and promotion), or participate in routine committee work. What is the intellectual mission of the university, we wonder, if it abandons the obligation to exercise critical judgment about the comparative value of different speech acts?
That abnegation of critical judgment is the most important feature of the 1994 statement. It is announced in the document’s short, emphatic second paragraph, which reads like a pull quote for the statement as a whole (and has often been cited that way): “On a campus that is free and open, no idea can be banned or forbidden. No viewpoint or message may be deemed so hateful or disturbing that it may not be expressed.” This may be the case when it comes to students; that’s what they are there for—to test out their thoughts and ideas and develop them. But one wonders why professors would be so allergic to the idea that some ideas have no place on their campuses—say, ideas that climate change is a hoax, that creationism is as legitimate as the theory of evolution, that phrenology has much to teach us, that vaccines cause autism, that Jews control the world banking system and the mass media, or that—as liberal lion Oliver Wendell Holmes once argued—the state has a perfectly legitimate interest in promoting the involuntary sterilization of people with intellectual disabilities.
At stake here is whether American universities can serve democracy, as they should, without turning into places where anything goes and knowledge is determined by those with the most money or the loudest voices. In Democracy, Expertise, and Academic Freedom: A First Amendment Jurisprudence for the Modern State, Yale law professor Robert C. Post distinguishes “democratic legitimation,” which is why we have the First Amendment, from “democratic competence,” which is why we have universities and academic freedom. As he explained in a 2012 interview, he developed these terms after realizing “that First Amendment protections can function to debase knowledge into mere opinion and thereby to undercut the very political conversation that the First Amendment otherwise fosters.” Democratic legitimation, he writes, “requires that the speech of all persons be treated with toleration and equality.” Democratic competence, by contrast, “requires that speech be subject to a disciplinary authority that distinguishes good ideas from bad ones.” How to reconcile the two? Post concludes that we must understand academic freedom to be based on democratic competence but not on democratic legitimation. Democratic competence—the knowledge and insight made available to society through its universities that are based on study and knowledge and not reducible to mere opinion or viewpoint—can be ensured when academic freedom, not free speech, is the ruling principle: Universities must be “free to evaluate scholarly speech based upon its content.”
Universities are thus critical institutions in democratic countries because the work they perform—discriminating between opinion or propaganda on the one hand and reasoned argument on the other—inhibits the development of alternate realities rooted in power and special interests. Why, then, has it been so easy and tempting for everyone to treat academic freedom as a synonym for free speech? For two reasons, we suspect. One, “expertise,” some conception of which is integral to academic freedom, is in bad odor these days, for some good and some bad reasons. Two, the idea of “competence” pales next to the triumphant rhetoric of free speech—the idea that everyone has a right to speak their mind. According to Post, while “it is not intelligible to believe that all ideas are equal,” Americans gravitate to free speech over the cognitive ideal embedded in academic freedom because “Americans are committed to the equality of persons,” and “the deep egalitarian dimension of the First Amendment resonates far more with this ethical value than with any cognitive ideal.”
Post is probably right about this—with the proviso that not all Americans are committed to the equality of persons, and that the conflict between those who are and those who are not has been central to the country’s legacy of racism. Acknowledging this reality—even in states where it is now illegal to acknowledge that legacy in schools—is the first step toward ensuring that white supremacist beliefs do not regain the academic legitimacy they enjoyed for so many years.
We didn’t choose to write about the problem of white supremacist professors simply because of the rise of Trumpism and the vicious backlash against BLM and CRT. Those are factors, to be sure. But the larger problem, which theorists of academic freedom have yet to confront, is that white supremacism has a very long and deeply entrenched history in American higher education. It was for many years the dominant strain of historiography in the United States, inaugurated by Columbia professor William Archibald Dunning in the late nineteenth century and carried on by his legions of students for generations. The Dunning School was, in effect, the intellectual arm of the neo-Confederate, white supremacist movement that continued to prosecute the Civil War—with great success. The derogatory and heavily laden terms “carpetbagger” (for Northerners who came to the South for political or economic reasons) and “scalawag” (for Southerners who supported Reconstruction) made their way into countless American history textbooks, and there was an entire cottage industry devoted specifically to besmirching the record and the person of President Ulysses S. Grant. The archive of the Dunning School is impressively large, and impressively influential. It was, in effect, the academic accomplice to Jim Crow.
Nor is the Dunning School itself anomalous in the history of American academe. As scholars of literature, we can add that the field of American literary study, from its origins in the 1920s, was almost exclusively an all-white affair as well, and remained so until the 1980s. For much of the first half of the twentieth century, the work produced in elite universities, in many fields, was either complicit with or actively engaged in promoting the projects of white supremacy. Again, Columbia University provides a shining example: John W. Burgess, whose influential two-volume 1890 work, Political Science and Comparative Constitutional Law, assured a generation and more of theorists and policymakers that “the highest talent for political organization has been exhibited by the Aryan nations” and that “Teutons” (by which he meant Anglo Americans, Germans, and Scandinavians) rule by right over their inferiors: “In a state whose population is composed of a variety of nationalities the Teutonic element, when dominant, should never surrender the balance of political power, either in general or local organization, to the other elements. Under certain circumstances it should not even permit participation of the other elements in political power.” Burgess is often considered to be among the scholars responsible for establishing political science as a discipline.
So for those of us living and working in academe today, what is to be done? Are we to retroactively cancel William Dunning, John Burgess, and all their epigones, firing them posthumously and removing their books from the libraries? Of course not. Like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation and Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, the novel on which the groundbreaking film was based, they are part of the legacy of American white supremacy just as surely as Black disenfranchisement, persecution, and lynching. We need to acknowledge that today and continue to study its implications, not cancel it. But we also need to say, after 250 years of slavery and another 150 of systemic racism in American life, that enough is enough. White supremacist scholarship is bad scholarship; it serves morally and politically repugnant ends; and though we can’t wish its legacy away, we can and should say that it has long outlived its expiration date. Like Holocaust denial by historians of Germany, it needs to be understood as a sign of unfitness that needs to be assessed by a panel of disciplinary peers.
Let us be clear about where we are setting the bar. We are not saying that widely held political positions on the right, like opposition to affirmative action or immigration, are grounds for determining a faculty member’s unfitness. Affirmative action and immigration are subjects about which there can be legitimate political disagreement. But the assertion that Black people are biologically or culturally less capable of self-government than others is qualitatively different—and disqualifying. Versions of that belief have poisoned so-called Western culture for more than 500 years, and arguably reached an apex in the early twentieth century, when pseudoscientific racism laid the groundwork for eugenics and genocide. It is past time for them to go the way of beliefs in phlogiston, the philosopher’s stone, and the efficacy of human sacrifice—beliefs that every American is free to espouse but no one would defend on the basis of academic freedom.
So, this brings us to the money question: Amy Wax made headlines again in early 2022, this time for complaining that there are too many Asians in the country. In response, Keith E. Whittington, professor of politics at Princeton, rushed to her defense, as he has before—this time under the aegis of the newly formed Academic Freedom Alliance. “Wax should suffer no formal consequences as the result of these public statements,” Whittington wrote. “Regardless of what one thinks about Professor Wax’s personal political views, the only appropriate action that the University of Pennsylvania should take in this situation is to publicly reaffirm the free speech rights of the members of its faculty.” The idea, once again, is that academic freedom is identical with free speech, and that accordingly, nothing a professor says can be considered grounds for “formal consequences.”
To be sure, professors should not be fired simply for obnoxious beliefs. But if those beliefs demonstrate unfitness—professional incompetence—then they are grounds not merely for criticism but dismissal. Incompetence has always been the criterion, as it should be; and while the AAUP has rightly insisted that the bar for determining unfitness must be very high, surely it is not so high that it disappears from view altogether. Occasionally, faculty do face consequences for espousing beliefs with no tether to any plausible reality known to humankind; James Tracy at Florida Atlantic University and Joy Karega at Oberlin College are two recent examples. Tracy was a communications scholar and a Sandy Hook truther who made a point of tormenting the grieving parents of children murdered in that massacre; Karega was a professor of rhetoric and composition who promoted a panoply of antisemitic conspiracy theories, including the claims that ISIS is a CIA/Mossad front and that the 2015 Islamist attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo was in fact a false flag operation conducted by Israel. Both were rightly determined to be in the ballpark of Holocaust-denying historians (though Tracy was technically fired for insubordination).
But who gets to decide unfitness, and how is due process ensured? The AAUP has always been resolute in its conviction that only one’s peers can decide one’s fitness. An engineer does not review a literary critic for promotion and tenure; only other literary critics do. A Republican governor does not decide what political scientists determine should be in their curricula. Furthermore, administrators are supposed to defer to the mechanisms of peer review. But when it comes to dealing with allegedly racist faculty, there is no system of peer review whatsoever—and so decisions are handed by default to administration, and procedures are opaque if not Kafkaesque.
We therefore call on faculty senates across the country to develop “academic freedom committees” comprising faculty elected to adjudicate cases by establishing field-appropriate review panels in the physical sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities. Some senates have standing committees with “academic freedom” as their charge already; their jurisdiction should be enlarged to ensure that cases of disciplinary incompetence can be brought to them and panels created by them. Faculty at institutions with strong traditions of shared governance understand the power of universitywide faculty committees, but they may harbor doubts about such committees nonetheless. The vast majority of faculty do not labor under the illusion that some other body, one not made up of one’s peers, is gifted with a degree of clarity and insight that eludes faculty, but they still have reason to wonder if we can trust one another. We understand that we, the faculty, lose academic freedom the moment we search for recourse in any authority but our own. But then again, who are we? We exist in the same typically predominantly white institutions that have housed white nationalists and Western chauvinists for years. We are the people who have been unable or unwilling to integrate what Black intellectuals from George Washington Williams to Charles W. Mills have repeatedly pointed out about the structural racism that is baked into higher education no less than it is in democracy itself. We are also the people who jealously guard any apparent infringement on absolute autonomy, willing to protect those we abhor if we think it makes our own protection more invincible.
Yes, the faculty are still dominated by a “we” for whom largely libertarian defenses of academic freedom remain persuasive. But only by a slight margin. These traditional defenders for whom free speech and academic freedom are synonymous have grown increasingly alarmed by what they interpret to be the younger generation’s ignorance regarding academic freedom’s purpose and importance. This is the generation that will populate and direct academic freedom committees—and the same signs that worry free-speech absolutists and those who conflate free speech with academic freedom are the ones that give us hope. There is much more to be said on this question of the emergent values of the next cohort of academics, of course, and much that remains unclear. But we cannot look outside the university for the help we need to solve a problem specific to universities; and academic freedom, unlike free speech, is specific to universities. And we believe we need to do something. We will offer one last example of why.
In July 2020, Lawrence M. Mead, a professor of politics and public policy at NYU, published an essay in the journal Society titled “POVERTY AND CULTURE.” The article immediately sparked controversy and calls for its retraction, on the grounds that its argument was not only overtly racist but utterly unsupported by scholarship on poverty. There is no question, we think, that the argument is racist. The really challenging and daunting thing about it, however, is that it is not an outlier, and not unsupported by other scholarship. On the contrary, it draws on decades of white supremacist work in the social sciences, including much of Mead’s prior work.
The thesis is simple and familiar: Poverty is not, by and large, caused by structural oppression, historical and compounded inequities, or racism. It is caused primarily by cultural differences, by which Mead means the enterprising individualist culture of “the West” and the collective, less-than-enterprising cultures of the “non-West”: “Today, the seriously poor are mostly blacks and Hispanics, and the main reason is cultural difference. The great fact is that these groups did not come from Europe.... Their native stance toward life is much more passive than the American norm.” Mead argues that the non-West is the source of “minorities”: “the West has simply chosen a more ambitious way of life than the non-West, where minorities originate.... An enterprising temperament, historians suggest, chiefly explains why the West has dominated the globe in recent centuries.” You will not be surprised to learn that there is no footnote to indicate which “historians” have suggested this. But you might be surprised to learn that Hispanics—who, last we checked, came to the Americas from Spain—are part of the “non-West” in which minorities originate.
If the relegation of Hispanics to the non-West were not bad enough, Mead treats his readers to some straight-up anti-Black racism, laced with a degree of ignorance that should embarrass anyone claiming the title of professor:
Academics blame black social problems on white oppression. By that logic, the problems should have been worst prior to the civil rights reforms in the 1960s. But in fact the opposite occurred. The collapse of the black family occurred mostly after civil rights rather than before. Most blacks came from a highly collective society in Africa, then lived under slavery and Jim Crow in the South. Those structures kept disorder at a low level. In that era, black levels of crime and female-headedness were not much higher than among whites. But blacks lost that structure after many migrated to the Northern cities in the last century, and especially after Jim Crow was abolished in the 1960s. So black social problems escalated even as opportunities broadened.
One hardly knows where to begin. Should one point out that the Black family was all but nonexistent under slavery, insofar as marriage was illegal and children were routinely sold away from their mothers? Natal alienation would seem relevant to any historical understanding of the “Black family.” Or should one remark on the Gilley-esque implication that slavery and Jim Crow had benefits for Black families, by keeping “disorder at a low level”? Or should one stop and marvel at the culturally illiterate claim—again, embarrassing for anyone with the title of professor—that “Africa” is a highly collective society? It is surely but a half-step from there to the belief that Africa is a backward continent.
Not long after Mead’s essay was published, Mohamad Bazzi, a professor of journalism at NYU, tweeted a series of screenshots of excerpts of what he called “this stunning article.” The tweets drew the attention of Timothy Burke, a historian and Africanist at Swarthmore who from 2002 to 2021 maintained a highly respected blog, Easily Distracted (he has since moved, like so many other bloggers, to Substack). Burke proceeded to compose a nearly 3,500-word blog post detailing the numerous inaccuracies and failures of scholarship in Mead’s essay. What was especially striking about Burke’s response was his breakdown of the claim that Africa is a highly collective society, offering quick sketches of “Igbo-speaking communities in the Niger Delta/Cross River area between 1600–1800,” “Mande-speaking societies associated with the formation of the empire of Mali in the upper Niger and the savannah just west of the Niger,” the Asante Empire, and the Kingdom of Dahomey. “I’m going to be somewhat crudely comparative here,” Burke wrote, “but what I’m calling crude is essentially about ten magnitudes of sophistication above Mead’s crayon scrawling.”
Burke’s post is dated July 28, 2020; the following day, an “editor’s note” appeared online at the head of Mead’s article, reading, “Concerns have been raised with this article and are being investigated. Further editorial action will be taken as appropriate once the investigation into the concerns is complete and all parties have been given an opportunity to respond in full.” (We do not mean to imply that Burke’s post alone was responsible for this note; the outcry sparked by Mead’s article was immediate, loud, and widespread.) Two days later, the editor in chief of Society, Jonathan B. Imber, Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College, together with Springer Nature, the publisher, retracted the article. Imber has since stepped down as editor in chief.
This regrettable sequence of events seems to us right and just, for as with Gilley’s “the case for colonialism,” the publication of “POVERTY AND CULTURE” appears to have rested on editorial judgment that is questionable at best, and certainly not in line with standard academic practice. As Imber explained in a statement, his decision “was a mistake, and one I deeply regret. My intent was to have this commentary published alongside two critical reviews of Mead’s 2019 book, Burdens of Freedom, on which Mead’s commentary is based, that identify flaws in Mead’s arguments. The decision was entirely my responsibility and no other member of the editorial board of Society was consulted or participated in that decision.” Mead, for his part, refused to agree to the retraction.
But the mention of Mead’s book Burdens of Freedom: Cultural Difference and American Power raises the larger question at stake. Burdens of Freedom was published by the conservative press Encounter Books, not by an academic press, but it testifies to the fact that for Mead, “POVERTY AND CULTURE” was not a one-off. Quite the contrary, the ideas in that essay are the foundation of Mead’s career; in fact, Society had recently published (in 2018) a substantially similar essay by Mead, “CULTURAL DIFFERENCE.” And Mead has been recycling this material for quite some time. Furthermore, it is not as if Mead is an obscure academic, quietly ruminating on why people of color lack individual initiative while whittling on his front porch; he is, by all accounts, one of the most influential voices in American public policy on welfare, having provided the intellectual apparatus for welfare “reform” in the 1990s as enacted by Rudolph Giuliani in New York City and (to some extent) President Clinton at the federal level.
The problem with Mead, therefore, is not the narrow question of whether “POVERTY AND CULTURE” was properly peer reviewed. It is not even whether his account of poverty or his characterization of “African society” makes any sense. Timothy Burke understood the stakes immediately: When a work “is not only bad,” he wrote, “but makes morally and politically repellant [sic] claims, it’s right to not merely offer public criticism but to raise questions about why a respectable scholarly journal would offer a place to such work.”
There is no question, we believe, that Mead’s article makes morally and politically repellent claims, just as Gilley’s “THE CASE FOR COLONIALISM” and “Was it Good Fortune to be Enslaved by the British Empire?” do. As to the question of whether it is “bad” in a scholarly sense—well, yes, of course. It is very bad. But then that judgment is an indictment not merely of this essay but of the entire tradition of pseudoscholarship of which it is a part. “But wait,” you say. “This argument extends well beyond the kind of white supremacism you’re targeting, and you’re assuming that it will be adopted only by people you agree with. What if leftist pseudoscholarship were at stake? Wouldn’t you close ranks and invoke the very idea of academic freedom you’re critiquing here?”
No, we wouldn’t. Pseudoscholarship knows no party affiliation, and the arguments of Joy Karega and James Tracy should be subject to the same scrutiny we’re applying to Mead. As if to make our case for us, renowned leftist media theorist Mark Crispin Miller has for many years offered an impressive array of “alternative” accounts of reality, from 9/11 and Sandy Hook to the little-known “fact” that Black Lives Matter is funded by the CIA. In the era of Covid-19, Miller has turned the volume up to 11, proclaiming that the vaccines are an “inhuman witch’s brew of nanoparticles, human DNA (from fetal cells), and toxic adjuvants” and warning all and sundry of the global eugenicist conspiracy being carried out by Bill Gates, George Soros, the Rockefellers, the House of Windsor, and Ted Turner.
If Miller is indeed teaching such material in his courses on Mass Persuasion and Propaganda, we think he should be treated identically to someone who tells students that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a reliable source. But instead, what happened to Miller at NYU was that in 2020 his colleagues called for an “expedited review” of his alleged “intimidation tactics, abuses of authority, aggressions and microaggressions, and explicit hate speech.” In 2021, Miller was cleared, and declared victory over the forces of woke oppression; he sued his colleagues for defamation, and that suit was dismissed in February of this year.
But there is a crucial question here. Mark Dery asked it in his Chronicle of Higher Education essay on Miller: “Why did his colleagues, in the letter that provoked his lawsuit, focus not on his seeming disregard for core academic values like intellectual rigor and objective fact, at a moment when the very notions are under assault, but rather his alleged ‘hate speech,’ ‘microaggressions,’ and transphobia?” The answer, we propose, is that NYU has an office and a procedure for dealing with hate speech, microaggressions, and transphobia. It does not have an office or a procedure for dealing with faculty whose teachings violate every standard of legitimate and responsible research. And so Mark Crispin Miller’s case was adjudicated by means of a category error, as if the real problem is his allegedly nasty attitude and transphobia rather than his manifestly falsifiable conspiracy-mongering.
That is why universities need academic freedom committees: to differentiate between professors’ high-value and low-value speech, and to determine whether a professor’s beliefs can be, at an extreme, disqualifying. That is how we can maintain the academic integrity of academic freedom.
* This article has been updated.
Excerpted and adapted primarily from Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth’s It’s Not Free Speech: Race, Democracy, and the Future of Academic Freedom. © 2022 Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted with permission of Johns Hopkins University Press.