The Limits of Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is not a license for bigotry

GWU campus with trees and bust of George Washington

GWU Campus
(Ingfbruno via Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, the organization StandWithUs filed a complaint against George Washington University (GW) after a psychology professor repeatedly harassed and demeaned the Jewish students who were required to take her class. When those students reported her actions, the professor, Dr. Lara Sheehi, retaliated by instituting baseless disciplinary proceedings against them. GW’s miserable official response did not deny the claims, but noted that while the university “strongly condemns antisemitism and hatred,” it “also recognizes and supports academic freedom.”

No credible theory of academic freedom could, or should, condone this particular professor’s noxious behavior or the university’s indefensible tolerance of it. Academic freedom does not protect discriminatory harassment, indoctrination, or incompetence.

First, from a legal perspective, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit succinctly explained in Bonnell v. Lorenzo (2001), “While a professor’s rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression are paramount in the academic setting, they are not absolute to the point of compromising a student’s right to learn in a hostile-free environment.” Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits institutions of higher education from creating a discriminatory or hostile environment for any student on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Per the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights’s guidance, speech crosses over from protected territory into harassing verbal conduct when it is “sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by a [university].”

That is a very high threshold, but the allegations in the GW complaint meet it—and then some. To quote Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “Academic freedom does not mean a faculty member can harass, threaten, intimidate, ridicule, or impose his or her views on students.” That is precisely what happened here, according to the complaint.

That brings us to the next point: the difference between education and indoctrination.

Per the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, an instructor who addresses “controversial matters” should present “the divergent opinions of other investigators” and “above all” should “remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials [that] they need if they are to think intelligently.” The updated 1940 Statement echoed these sentiments, noting that scholars should “show respect for the opinion of others.” And a 2007 AAUP report further warned, “Instructors indoctrinate when they teach particular propositions as dogmatically true.”

As former Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus has explained, there is a difference between a professor sharing his personal opinion versus presenting that opinion as incontrovertible fact. In Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), the first Supreme Court case to expound upon the concept of academic freedom, the Court wrote: “Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study, and to evaluate … otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die.”

At GW, the professor dismissed the students’ concerns by explaining that her position on what is and is not antisemitic is a “non-negotiable truth,” akin to a “historical fact.” Permitting a teacher to cast biased falsehoods as fact while consistently mocking and shutting down an exploration of alternative viewpoints is to actually violate all that “academic freedom,” properly interpreted, ought to protect.

Finally, on a pragmatic level, academic freedom does not protect disciplinary incompetence. In a mandatory class on diversity—specifically, one designed to promote awareness of different cultural identities and experiences and to help students develop comfort in self-exploration—the professor repeatedly demeaned and disparaged students and an entire minority culture, denied their collective experiences, and shut down any attempts to offer a different perspective.

Academic freedom does not extend to expression that fails to meet professional standards. Separate from the violation of her ethical duties in this instance, the GW professor also made clear that in her opinion, in order to be a good clinical psychologist, one must be an anti-Zionist—indeed, that anti-Zionism should be a “central working tenet of any clinical praxis that purports to be interested in alleviating the suffering of others.” From an academic integrity perspective, then, the professor is unfit to teach not only this “diversity” class, but any clinical course in which she evaluates students for professional competence.

Of course, as happens all too often when Jewish students complain of antisemitism, the GW professor immediately pulled the classic “prejudice pivot,” accusing the very students she was silencing of trying to silence others. This perverse victim-blaming tactic does not happen in instances involving other forms of discrimination, where the general inclination is typically to believe the accuser—or at the very least, to investigate on the assumption that a complaint was made in good faith. GW’s perversion of “academic freedom” to paint away the pattern of harassment makes for a shocking and a shameful new low.

The only proper invocation of academic freedom in this context would be for the school to acknowledge that the students’ rights to academic freedom were repeatedly violated: when they were force-fed indoctrination; when they were denied the opportunity to express themselves; when their opinions were summarily dismissed and shot down; and when they were punished for merely expressing them.

GW should immediately amend its statement and its actions to accurately reflect whose freedoms were actually violated here, and to protect the members of its community from bias.

Mark Goldfeder is the director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center. The views expressed in this article, which is reprinted with the author’s permission, are the author’s own.

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