Academic freedom

UCF professor’s e-mail accuses students of bigotry

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A professor sent a mass e-mail to all of the students in his course when some of them argued that Christianity is a superior religion. Was he right to do so?

UT-Austin scrutinizes ethics of controversial same-sex parenting study

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UT-Austin launches administrative inquiry into integrity of controversial study about children of same-sex couples.

Augustana retreat an exercise in collective governance

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Augustana College president tries to give professors a voice in institutional governance at a time when faculty members across the country feel marginalized.

Iowa State cancels class on Biblical insights for business

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After a faculty campaign, university calls off a class on applying the Bible to business.

Harvard kills courses by controversial summer school instructor

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Harvard faculty decides that a controversial economist's statements about Muslims were so offensive that his normal summer school courses should be eliminated.

Middlebury announces end of disciplinary process over disruption of Charles Murray visit

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College finishes disciplinary processes related to Charles Murray visit and its disruption. Local police will not bring charges against anyone for attack on a professor.

Five CUNY professors defend Linda Sarsour's right to speak at graduation (essay)

For the past few weeks, right-wing and conservative religious groups have protested the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy’s invitation to Linda Sarsour, an Arab-American activist and co-organizer of the national Women’s March on Washington in January, to speak at its graduation next week. They are calling on New York's governor and the city's mayor to force the school to withdraw the invitation.

This is not the first time conservatives have tried to pressure CUNY to rescind an invitation to a speaker who disagreed with their views on Israel. In 2011, in response to outside pressure, some members of the CUNY Board sought to force John Jay College of Criminal Justice to disinvite Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Fortunately, CUNY rejected that view. And in 2013, when Brooklyn College received strong criticism for co-sponsoring a panel discussion about the movement that calls for economic boycotts and sanctions against Israel, Mayor Michel R. Bloomberg observed, "If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea."

As Distinguished Professors in various disciplines at CUNY, most of us Jewish, we support the right of our colleges to select graduation speakers and of our students to hear the views of those who are bringing new voices into the nation’s political discourse.

In an era when free speech is under threat, we feel it is an essential task of the university to provide a space where diverse points of view can be aired and debated. What could be more central than this to the maintenance of our democracy? Right-wing critics are quick to complain when college students protest inviting speakers like Betsy DeVos, Milo Yiannopoulos or Charles Murray to speak on campus, but feel justified in calling for limits on free speech when they disagree with speakers, a double standard that fundamentally misunderstands the First Amendment.

Like other Americans, CUNY students and faculty disagree about Israeli -- and American -- politics, policies and leaders. In our classrooms, clubs, civic organizations and even at faculty gatherings, we take pride in these often difficult but always enlightening discussions. Such differences, and our willingness to hear multiple perspectives, highlight our strength as a crucible for democratic discourse. Colleges and universities should not establish rules about which political views can be discussed and debated and which cannot.

Why the School Chose Sarsour

The CUNY School of Public Health selected Linda Sarsour to deliver the keynote address June 1 because the selection committee believed she represents the new activism of young people, women, immigrants and others speaking out against discrimination and intolerance and in favor of democracy, solidarity and human rights. In 2012, President Barack Obama designated Sarsour a Champion of Change. The White House observed that “Linda’s strengths are in the areas of community development, youth empowerment, community organizing, civic engagement and immigrants’ rights advocacy.”

Time magazine recently named Sarsour one of the 100 Most Influential People of 2017 because of her work in organizing the Women’s March, and Fortune magazine also included her on their 2017 list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has written that the Women’s March was “a lightning bolt of awakening for so many women and men who demanded to be heard … and it happened because four extraordinary women [including Sarsour] had the courage to take on something big, important and urgent … The images of Jan. 21, 2017, show a diverse, dynamic America -- striving for equality for all.”

That’s the person and message that the School of Public Health is honoring at its graduation. The others to be honored at the graduation ceremonies include Chirlane McCray, the first lady of New York City, for her work in promoting better access to mental-health services, and Mary Bassett, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who has led municipal initiatives to reduce racial, ethnic and income inequalities in health in the city. In the view of the selection committee, these three women represent new voices for more inclusive activist approaches to improving public health and social justice.

The Opposition

In their opposition to inviting Sarsour, conservative and religious critics have cited her alleged connection to Arab militant organizations and her condemnation of Israeli policies and leaders. If American universities invited only graduation speakers whose every statement and tweet over their lifetime offended no one on the right or left or in any religious group, our graduation ceremonies would be dull and vacuous, inspiring no one and detached from the larger world.

Fortunately, other important voices in New York City support the School of Public Health’s right to decide whom to invite. An editorial in the New York Daily News chastised critics of the invitation for objecting to cancellation of right-wing speakers at other universities and asserted that “her right to deliver the address ought not be in question.” Two New York rabbis wrote a Daily News op-ed calling Sarsour “a friend to Jews.” CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken noted that, while he disagreed with Sarsour’s position on some issues, “difference of opinion provides no basis for action now. Taking action because critics object to the content of speech would conflict with the First Amendment and the principles of academic freedom.”

City University has long prided itself on providing a path for equitable access to higher education, a crucible for democracy, a place where faculty and students can hear and debate controversial ideas, and an institution that cherishes social justice and freedom of speech. In its selection of Sarsour, the School of Public Health graduation honors those principles.

Meena Alexander is Distinguished Professor of English and Women's Studies at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Michelle Fine is Distinguished Professor of Critical Psychology at the Graduate Center. Nicholas Freudenberg is Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. Gerald Markowitz is Distinguished Professor of History at John Jay College and the Graduate Center. Rosalind Petchesky is Distinguished Professor Emerita of Political Science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center.

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Dozens walk out at Notre Dame to protest Pence, who criticizes political correctness

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Dozens walk out on his commencement speech. Vice president attacks “noxious wave” he sees in higher education.

Middlebury announces additional punishments related to disruption of Charles Murray lecture

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College announces sanctions against 19 more students over their roles in disruption of Charles Murray lecture. Some professors -- at Middlebury and elsewhere -- continue to question whether punishment is appropriate.

The Duke Divinity email fracas and the perils of seeing academic work as a vocation (essay)

There is no official tally of how many resignations have ensued from reply-all email battles in the academy, but the count recently went up by one. The Catholic theologian Paul J. Griffiths of Duke Divinity School will reportedly leave his named chair in a year. This news came after a contentious email exchange between Griffiths and his colleagues over an invitation to a workshop on racial equity.

According to the published emails, Anathea Portier-Young, an associate professor of Old Testament, had emailed the school’s faculty members and students, “strongly urg[ing]” them to attend a voluntary two-day training on anti-racism. Later that day, Griffiths replied, claiming that the training would be “intellectually flaccid,” “definitively anti-intellectual,” a “waste” and a “distraction” from the school’s mission. Following this exchange, Griffiths has said that there were disciplinary moves made against him, including his being banned from faculty meetings.

In one of his messages to the faculty, Griffiths says that his case is about intellectual freedom. The conservative commentator Rod Dreher wants to make it about the illiberalism of the academy and its legion of intolerant “social justice warriors.” (Incidentally, Griffiths is on the record as skeptical toward liberal claims of tolerance.)

The case is also about the way academics think about their work. Judging from his emails, Griffiths seems to think of academic work as an exceptionally high calling, a vocation. He is hardly alone in thinking so. As a former theology professor at a Catholic college, I appreciate Griffiths’s sense that he is doing something of metaphysical importance.

But even a theologian has to remember that a professorship is also -- and perhaps mainly -- a job. That means that collegiality matters. It means that efforts to make the school more equitable for its students and faculty members matters. Indeed, by defining what they do in terms of vocation, scholars may do the profession and the people in it much greater harm than the “anti-intellectual” programs that Griffiths condemns.

The concept of vocation has religious roots in the calling of prophets, patriarchs and disciples. Yet even in the Bible, there is a conflict between vocation and ordinary work. In the gospels, Jesus calls his initial followers away from their work as fishermen and then gives them an unusual mission to preach and heal without accepting money. They are supposed to be itinerant, kicking away the dust of inhospitable towns as they leave them. Jesus expects that ultimately, his followers will be imprisoned and put to death for the sake of their call.

Griffiths writes that the work of the Divinity School’s faculty, “to think, read, write and teach about the triune Lord of Christian confession … is a hard thing. Each of us should be tense with the effort of it, thrumming like a tautly triple-woven steel thread with the work of it, consumed by the fire of it, ever eager for more of it.” In a sense, the passion with which Griffiths views his work is admirable. It is no doubt a major reason why he was able to become a leading scholar of Catholicism after already being a leading scholar of Buddhism, his CV stretching to 28 tightly spaced pages.

Vocational language surely has a place in divinity schools. But to ask any worker to be so stretched, to thrum, to burn and to be eager for more -- it can be inhuman. Ideals like this are what lead faculty members to burn out, because not even Duke has the resources to support workers being treated as an infinitely malleable substance. This kind of zeal for work also gives cover for neglect of the humdrum work of managing an institution and getting along with coworkers. Compared to Griffiths’s vision of academic work, any meeting, any report, any regulation meant to make a university an easier place for people to work and learn debases the highest good.

The academic with a sense of calling is tenacious, possessing “the ability to don blinkers for once and to convince himself that the destiny of his soul depends upon whether he is right to make precisely this conjecture and no other,” in the words of Max Weber’s lecture “Science as a Vocation.” Only a zealot who cannot tolerate perceived error sees an easily deleted email invitation as an attack on an ideal, an attack that must be countered. I should know; I’ve succumbed to zeal myself and been too quick to reply all with a sharp refutation of a minor point. Weber called the academic vocation a “strange intoxication.” It keeps the scholar fixated on a problem, even when it’s the wrong problem.

Ideals always come with costs. Stifling the ideal of the academic vocation might mean that some geniuses went unaccommodated while the decency of office life was tended and bureaucrats were appeased. Weber, for his part, thought the vocation was a necessary intoxication. According to him, academics can only bear the indignities of graduate programs, the job market, peer review and promotion and tenure -- indignities academics themselves invented -- if each one “finds and obeys the daemon that holds the threads of his life.”

But the costs are even greater if the ideal of the vocation crowds out academics’ ability to see that they are workers. Belief in vocation keeps grad students and postdocs performing what Miya Tokumitsu calls “hope labor.” They do skilled labor for little pay now in the hope that they will one day get the big reward of a tenure-track job. It goes without saying that their hope is often in vain.

The costs of vocationalism also include the strains that itinerancy places on dual-academic-career relationships, as well as untold amounts of harassment endured and swept under departmental rugs, and labor rights and benefits not argued for or unacknowledged. After all, if you have a calling, why let mundane concerns get in its way?

No doubt, someone could turn my argument around and say that the Divinity School faculty who welcomed the anti-racism workshop are too zealous in their sense of vocation. I don’t know enough to say; only Griffiths has made his case public. But the faculty members whom Griffiths criticizes at least acknowledge that, as a place of learning and work, the school has a racial climate that is worth understanding and improving.

Griffiths closed his initial email by exhorting his colleagues to “Keep your eyes on the prize,” a cynical echo of a civil-rights theme. Depending on the prize, focusing intently on it can take your eyes off your surroundings. It can make you stumble into the people around you, knock them down, flail about to steady yourself and then wonder why they insist on living in the muck.

Jonathan Malesic is a writer living in Dallas and an adjunct faculty member at McCormick Theological Seminary. He is working on a book about the spiritual costs of the American work ethic. (Twitter: @jonmalesic)

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Thursday, May 18, 2017
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