Leak sparks debate on academic freedom
Following the leak of faculty emails from the restricted “Concerned” Listserv this past summer and University President Frederick Lawrence’s response to the comments in a July 28, 2014 statement, some faculty members have expressed concerns regarding freedom of speech on campus.
“Concerned” is a restricted email list that was created in 2003 as a forum for interested professors to express their concerns surrounding the Iraq War and has since evolved to bring attention to other issues.
Many of the “Concerned” leaks involved comments that expressed discontent with Israel and policies pertaining to Gaza. In his initial Breitbart News Network article leaking the emails, Daniel Mael ’15 included Hindley’s comments from a 2007 email to the Listserv with the subject line “Plant a Tree, Bury a Palestinian.”
“Zionist olive trees grow wondrously on Palestinian corpses,” the email read. “In that way, we combine great trees with our own holocaustic ethnic cleansing.”
Other comments leaked in the Breitbart article were faculty reactions before the University decided to rescind Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s invitation to receive honorary degree at the 2014 commencement ceremony. “Ayaan Hirsi Ali claims to have had a difficult early life, and it may be true,” Prof. Mary Baine Campbell’s (ENG) leaked email read. “However, she’s an ignorant, ultra-right-wing extremist, abusively, shockingly vocal in her hatred for Muslim culture and Muslims, a purveyor of the dangerous and imaginary concept, born of European distaste for the influx of immigrants from its former colonies, ‘Islamofascism’—which has died on the vine even of the new European right wing.”
The story received national attention, and drew criticism from those both outside and inside of the Brandeis community. In response to the situation with the Concerned Listserv, Lawrence released a July 28, 2014 statement affirming professors’ rights to engage “in a full, open, civil and decent manner.” However, he added that “some remarks by an extremely small cohort of Brandeis faculty members are abhorrent.”
The definition of academic freedom
While there are some opposing opinions in academica, organizations such as the American Association of University Professors incorporate all intellectual debate under academic freedom. This includes debate outside of one’s own academic research and expertise.
The University’s current Faculty Handbook explicitly protects faculty members’ speech “in the fulfillment of their university responsibilities, including teaching, advising, discussion, research, publication, and creative work, as well as other scholarly activities,” the handbook reads. “When a member of the faculty speaks or writes in public, other than as a representative of the university, he or she is free from institutional restraints.”
The history of academic freedom at Brandeis
This year’s events under Lawrence are not the first in Brandeis’ history to raise the issue of academic freedom.
Hindley said that he was looking forward to relief from former University President Jehuda Reinharz’s administration when Lawrence took over in January 2011. Under Reinharz, Hindley had also been at the center of a controversy over freedom of speech in the classroom.
During the fall 2007 semester, students in Hindley’s class approached the Politics department chair about his use of the word “wetbacks” in class. The context of his use of the word was disputed. In response to the situation, a member of the administration was sent to monitor the classroom, and Hindley was required to complete sensitivity training. Hindley said in a recent interview with the Justice that student course evaluations before the situation stated that he had used politically incorrect language, but there had been no repercussions up until that point.
The administration’s response to the situation led the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—an organization that, according to its website, aims to protect “freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience” on college and university campuses—to place Brandeis on its Red Alert list in 2008.
In an interview with the Justice this year, Campbell also discussed issues that occurred under the previous administration but still hold true currently with concerns of academic freedom on the rise. She said that there are a number of “topics [she] would never bring up” in the classroom.
After teaching Palestine by Joe Sacco—a graphic novel about the author’s experiences in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—one semester, she recalled receiving an anonymous letter that she described as “slanderous [and] vicious” from an individual claiming to be a parent of a student in that class. The parent claimed that he or she would complain and reveal the student’s identity after graduation due to “fear of reprisal,” Campbell said. “I was anxious for the next three years,” she said. However, the complaint never came up again.
Tracing back to Brandeis’ beginnings under its first president, Abram Sachar, the issue of free speech came up in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Several professors on the University’s campus came out in support of Fidel Castro and “vigorously upheld the Khrushchev-Castro policy as a legitimate response to ‘American imperialism,’” Sachar wrote in his 1976 book Brandeis University: A Host at Last. One such faculty member was Herbert Marcuse, a professor who the University recently celebrated with the 50th anniversary of the publication of One-Dimensional Man in 2014. However, there was tension in Marcuse’s relationship with Sachar due to what Sachar described in his book as a “corrosive style.”
When Marcuse turned 68—which was then the age of retirement for faculty—the University had the option of extending his contract for one year, and then for one more year at the age of 69. However, the mandatory age of retirement at the time was 70. Marcuse was offered a three-year appointment at the University of California San Diego, a deal which Sachar refused to compete with. Sachar noted in his book that the faculty supported the refusal to offer an extended contract. However, given the pre-existing tension in their relationship, word got out that Marcuse was “fired,” Sachar wrote.
Along with the tension between Sachar and Marcuse, associate professor in anthropology Kathleen Gough’s statements and conduct led to her resignation in 1963. At an Oct. 24, 1962 public meeting in Ford Hall, Gough said to a crowd of students in attendance that if she were back in London where anti-American rallies were taking place, she would join the demonstrators in saying: “Viva Fidel, Kennedy to hell.” Gough then said that she hoped the U.S. was defeated to end its imperialism, Sachar’s book states.
Sachar also wrote in his book that he spoke to Gough to hear firsthand what she had said. “I made it clear that I did not quarrel with her right to denounce American foreign policy,” he wrote. “I told Miss Gough that freedom of the platform gave her no warrant for an irresponsible attack.”
According to a March 26, 1963 Harvard Crimson article, Gough claimed that her resignation followed an informal disclosure that her upcoming tenure application would not be approved and that she would not receive a recommended raise—although, according to Sachar, she still was slated to receive a normal salary increase. She simply was not awarded an additional merit increase, Sachar wrote, which was recommended by her husband David Aberle, who happened to chair the Anthropology department at the time.
Sachar’s story in his book contrasts with the Crimson’s account, though, as he noted that Gough’s contract was actually renewed and that Gough did not honor the full terms of her contract prior to leaving Brandeis for the University of Oregon. He said that prior to leaving campus, she went to the American Association of University Professors with complaints of unfair treatment.
Sachar admitted an error in handling the situation in his recollections of the University’s founding. “As I look back upon the episode, I am inclined to agree that it was a mistake to take upon myself the full responsibility for the reprimand of Miss Gough,” he wrote.
Fear of University recourse
Campbell discussed the “chill” in regard to freedom of speech at Brandeis for both tenured and non-tenured faculty. “Tenure is not a magic wand,” she said. She added that possible punishments as recourse for speech other than dismissal exist, such as freezing salaries or being shut out of normal operations. “Finding yourself unwelcome to the table is something that people fear,” she said.
Hindley had also noted that he felt “largely withdrawn” from the University and other faculty in more recent years. “It’s our absolute right not to be intimidated. It’s our duty not to be intimidated,” he said.
Campbell said that although there are only certain circumstances under which a tenured professor’s employment may be terminated—including extreme circumstances and financial exigency—she defined these reasons as potentially “subjective.”
Prof. Gordon Fellman (SOC), an administrator of the “Concerned” Listserv, noted what he referred to as the “corporatization” of universities as a factor in Brandeis’ response to the Listserv leaks last year.
Lawrence did not respond to requests for comment through Executive Director for Integrated Media Bill Schaller by press time.
Brandeis’ current Faculty Handbook includes a procedure for firing tenured faculty in cases of suspension, which can only be sought due to a specific cause or financial exigency. However, the Justice could not obtain documents detailing a time when this has occurred at the University. Prof. Jacob Cohen (AMST), who helped to draft the initial Faculty Handbook, said in an interview with the Justice that if the University fired a tenured professor based on such comments, “that would be the end of the University.” He further noted that the University would only declare financial exigency if it were “dead in the water.” Campbell, however, still described the criteria for dismissal as “subjective.”
Prof. Sue Lanser (ENG) read a letter aloud at the September 2014 faculty meeting asking for support from Lawrence, who was in attendance. “We are eager to hear your expression of this support for our colleagues because in your letter to the faculty of July 28, you denounced ‘crude and vulgar’ political opinions, and ‘disrespectful, offensive and inflammatory expressions,’” the letter read. “You did so in such general terms that many among us, including vulnerable junior colleagues and contract faculty, (on whom the University increasingly depends as a labor force) were not even sure what sorts of statements you might be denouncing.”
Although Lawrence had committed to attend the December faculty meeting to hold a dialogue regarding the “Concerned” Listserv and faculty concerns, the faculty meeting was ultimately cancelled. According to a Dec. 1, 2014 email to Brandeis faculty from Provost Lisa Lynch, Lawrence’s travel schedule required him to be off campus and there was no “pressing business to conduct” at the faculty meeting. Lynch wrote that Lawrence would not be able to attend the January faculty meeting, so a discussion is not anticipated to occur until the Feb. 26 meeting.
Campbell, however, is scheduled to teach a class on Thursdays during faculty meetings this semester. She had prepared to speak at a faculty meeting during the fall 2014 semester but said that she can no longer do so because the discussion was postponed to the spring 2015 semester.
In the past, she said, classes were not scheduled on Thursday afternoons during faculty meetings to allow faculty members to attend faculty meetings. This year’s Faculty Handbook corroborates that, reading that: “[c]lasses are not scheduled so as to conflict with regularly scheduled Faculty Meetings,” and that “[m]eetings are, as a rule, held on Thursday afternoons.”
Campbell noted what she referred to as a “decrease in democracy” due to an inability to participate in votes and discussions that occur at faculty meetings when one has a class.
Fear of threats
In addition to perceived potential consequences from the University, professors such as Campbell have received hate mail and threats—some she received expressed hope that she would be raped. Campbell also found a sliced and skinned rat placed on her car in September. She was placed under police protection for a limited time.
In response to some of the “Concerned” Listserv comments that drew national media attention, Fellman said that “[t]he guy who posted some offensive comments, he has a right to say those comments. I don’t like them. I asked him more than once if he would kind of tone them down … but he has a right to do that, and he has to take responsibility for that. That’s what free speech is about.”
Even within an academic context, however, a Dec. 20, 2010 Inside Higher Ed piece on its definition of academic freedom notes that the freedom “does not prevent others from judging whether their work is valuable and their conclusions sound.” At the same time, it states that “[a]cademic freedom means that both faculty members and students can engage in intellectual debate without fear of censorship or retaliation,” pointing to the disparity between criticism and retaliation.
Recent questions regarding academic freedom have been heated, but the term has a long and historical tradition in academia. The idea of tenure, according to Fellman, came into being primarily to protect scholars’ freedom of speech. However, whether or not this speech incorporates intellectual discussion outside of one’s expertise or research is currently up for debate among academics—even faculty at Brandeis itself. The discussion regarding what academic freedom incorporates, what the University expects and how the University plans to handle faculty members’ personal statements, however, has yet to occur at Brandeis under Lawrence.