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The Academic Freedom Alliance on Monday expressed its “dismay” at St. Olaf College’s recent decision to end a professor’s institute directorship a year early, after the institute hosted a controversial talk by the philosopher Peter Singer. Edmund Santurri, Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community and professor of religion and philosophy, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the issue. But the AFA says Santurri was previously lauded by St. Olaf as an “exemplary” leader of the institute, and he was promised a teaching release and a summer stipend for his directorship, which was to last through August 2023. The alliance asked St. Olaf to pay Santurri his promised stipend funds on top of his base salary and grant his request to be appointed to the college’s Institute Advisory Board.

“This sudden termination of Professor Santurri’s appointment as director sends a clear message to the campus that some exploration of ideas will not be tolerated and that the college’s stated promise that the faculty will have the full freedom to pursue the truth in accord with their scholarly judgment is a hollow one,” Keith Whittington, chair of the AFA’s Academic Committee and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University, wrote in his letter to St. Olaf. “It seems quite apparent that the precipitating cause of this decision was the controversy on campus surrounding Professor Peter Singer’s public lecture at the Institute in the spring of 2022, though we understand that there has likewise been concern expressed about other speakers brought to campus by the Institute.”

The letter notes that the institute’s stated purpose is to explore “diverse ideas about politics, markets and society” and to examine “what sorts of things have ultimate value and what sorts of conditions can be understood as just.” Bringing “world-renowned philosophers of public morality like Peter Singer to campus to discuss his scholarly ideas with members of the campus community would seem to be entirely consistent with that mission,” it says.

Singer has long been a target of criticism for his utilitarian views on people, and especially babies, with disabilities. His more recent work deals with animal welfare and fighting extreme poverty. He is currently the DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton.

St. Olaf said in a statement that the “upcoming change in leadership at St. Olaf College’s Institute for Freedom and Community is not the result of the current Institute director’s decision to host any single speaker. As the Academic Freedom Alliance’s letter notes, the Institute hosted its full, planned lineup of speakers this semester with the most recent event taking place on April 21. St. Olaf College fully supports the institute and its mission of exploring diverse ideas, encouraging free inquiry and promoting civil discourse through a wide range of programs and events. The college is searching for a new director who will support that mission and seek to build the institute’s profile, effectiveness and impact on our students.”

Santurri continues to serve as the institute’s director through the end of this academic year and “remains an active member of the St. Olaf faculty,” the college said.