Making It Official

Johns Hopkins decides that it's time to spell out what academic freedom means at the institution.

April 8, 2015

When Johns Hopkins University opened in 1876, its first president proclaimed a commitment to a “great freedom” for faculty and students to pursue learning and research.

But the modern Johns Hopkins University has no official statement outlining the core tenets of academic freedom.

Senior administrators saw that as a hole in the university’s principles, one that was highlighted after a series of campus incidents in the past few years that involved academic freedom and free expression, said Robert Lieberman, provost and vice president of academic affairs.

So last year, Lieberman and President Ronald Daniels announced the creation of a new task force to craft such a statement. Now, after several meetings and revisions, the administration is seeking feedback on the task force’s final product.

Lieberman said he didn’t know why the university hadn't broached the topic of outlining its philosophy on academic freedom before this. Regardless, he said, administrators felt a clear statement could help guide them when the values of academic freedom were challenged.

“Not having a clear statement around academic freedom made us trip over ourselves a little bit,” he said.

One of those incidents in which the university stumbled in its response occurred in 2013, when a dean asked a faculty member to remove a blog post on the National Security Administration. Subsequently, administrators announced they'd made an error.

Lieberman also pointed to tensions between student groups in favor of and opposed to legal abortion in recent years and complaints when Ben Carson, the former director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, was scheduled to speak at the medical school’s gradation. Carson has made headlines for his antigay statements, and students pushed the university to withdraw his invitation.

While the protections of academic freedom aren’t absolute, the principle does require tolerating views of a variety of perspectives, according to the statement the task force agreed on. Speech that’s deemed offensive to some isn’t alone enough to punish any member of the university community, it reads.

“The more appropriate response to such statements in an academic setting is objection, persuasion and debate.”

Nearly all of Johns Hopkins’s peer institutions have some version of an official academic freedom principle. They range from one or two paragraphs to one that was a 25-page, legal-like document, said Joel Grossman, a professor emeritus of political science, who led the task force.

At Johns Hopkins, the goal was to write a relatively short and succinct statement, he said. 

The task force was composed of 14 members, including faculty members and students who were selected from a variety of academic departments and offices.

Members surely were aware of current issues in academe that related to academic freedom, including debates over sensitive political topics such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the intersection between academic freedom and private research donations

Specific instances such as those weren’t emphasized during the drafting of the statement as much as debates over certain words and phrases, Grossman said.

Still, the document does mention the “special care” that needs to be taken in certain cases, such as developing relationships with outside organizations that may aim to influence research. Faculty members also ought to make it clear when discussing their personal views on political issues that students are free to disagree, according to the statement.

The document is a reminder of how members of the university are expected to behave and how much tolerance they have to say what they want, Grossman said. But like the protections granted by the First Amendment, as clear and simple as the statement is, the principle is still extraordinarily complex. There will also be a level of judgment required in determining whether academic freedom has been violated, and that's why it's hard to say how useful it will be for guiding individual cases in the future, Grossman aid. 

Statements outlining academic freedom are fairly commonplace and desirable, said Henry Reichman, a history professor at California State University at East Bay and chairman of the Association of American University Professors' Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

The statements often quote from the 1940 statement drafted by the A.A.U.P. and the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Johns Hopkins’s statement does not, and it groups the academic freedom rights of faculty with the free expression rights of the broader community, Reichman said in an email.

Over all, though, he called it a strong and welcome statement, pointing out that it protects the academic freedom of those without tenure or those off the tenure track.

The statement says that tenure is the "backbone of academic freedom," and that academic freedom "extends to all faculty, students and staff," not just those with tenure.

Johns Hopkins has set up a public comment period for feedback that lasts until May 8. After that, Lieberman said the goal is to present the final version to the Board of Trustees for inclusion in the university’s principles.

The task force also has recommended that the university look into creating a structure that provides enforcement for such principles and offers due process if they appear to be violated.

"The university will help itself if it’s prepared for the inevitable -- what’s hopefully occasional, but still inevitable -- when an event violates academic freedom," Grossman said.

"We haven’t addressed that, but somebody needs to."


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