Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

‘Let a thousand flowers bloom’: A defense of academic freedom

In a recent statement on freedom of expression, University President Fr. John Jenkins outlined an admirable approach to issues of debate and dialogue on campus. He favorably cited the commitments outlined by the University of Chicago, which support “the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed.”

However, when The Observer’s news writers reach out to professors, there’s an increasing reluctance to speak out on controversial issues, even if said topic is within their expertise. Several faculty members on campus have mentioned concerns including their standing on campus, their consideration for tenure and their personal safety.

Faculty should not feel as though they are being put at risk by wading into debates. Whether they comment or do not comment, their decision should not be made out of fear for their job. The tri-campus community has a particularly vibrant political climate among its student body, allowing a true diversity of perspectives across the spectrum to come together and find points of agreement and debate. 

There’s an old saying that shows why academic freedom and allowing viewpoints to be expressed is so important: let a thousand flowers bloom. By encouraging a plethora of opinions to rise, new ideas and arguments can properly develop, cross-pollinating in each other’s shadow. 

It’s easy to dismiss faculty concerns as baseless paranoia, but there have been complications facilitating academic discourse on campus. 

Faculty freedom of expression

In a recent story in The Observer, the University commented on the controversy surrounding sociology and global affairs professor Tamara Kay, seeming to impose new boundaries on academic freedom. Unlike Fr. Jenkins’ expansive statement, these comments suggest that a professor’s speech should be relegated to a limited area of expertise.

“Professor Kay’s area of expertise, which earned her appointment at Notre Dame, relates to global trade and, in particular, the North American Free Trade Agreement,” spokeswoman Sue Ryan wrote. 

“Even now, her page on the Department of Sociology website lists her research expertise in a wide range of sociological topics — none involving reproductive rights. Like any citizen, all Notre Dame faculty are of course free to discuss their personal opinions so long as they distinguish those opinions from their position at the University, a policy that is common in higher education.”

While the affirmation of free speech is encouraging, why is there a need to delineate between personal and academic speech, suggesting that one is more protected than the other? This arbitrary division makes even less sense when one sees that Kay has written an award-winning journal article on abortion, as heralded on the Keough School’s website. Most professors in the social sciences and humanities naturally go from one topic to another as their research interests progress – they can’t be limited to one of those areas.

Even if you think that Kay is wrong — ethically, morally, scientifically, perhaps to the very core of her argument — it is in your best interest to let her speak freely.

Academic freedom is not about one professor. It’s about the essentialness of discourse that characterizes a university. By allowing voices to fully share their arguments and expertise — in research, in the classroom and in the opinion pages of media outlets — you are able to understand how and why the other side might be wrong. Furthermore, by protecting the speech of professors you find objectionable, you ensure protection for the opinions you align with. 

A recent piece in The Cut noted that Notre Dame did not specifically condemn — or distance the University from — a Notre Dame professor’s blog posts about race and crime cited by the Buffalo shooter. On the other hand, The Cut alleges that despite likely being aware of Kay’s ongoing harassment, Jenkins wrote a public letter to the Chicago Tribune, distancing the University from the op-ed advocating for abortion rights co-authored by Kay. While it’s natural for a Catholic university to have an anti-abortion commitment, the University should equally consider its commitment to consistently protecting its professors.

A more productive example of how open debate can occur was political scientist Dan Philpott’s opposing piece responding to Kay’s op-eds.

Student freedom of expression

Although tri-campus institutions tend to say the right things about open discourse and academic freedom, some actions suggest otherwise.

Last semester, the University forbade student groups from purchasing tickets to a benefit where conservative pundit Ben Shapiro was speaking. The University refused to fund the event as they have in the past, deeming the event and speaker “problematic,” according to a report by the Irish Rover. More recently, a club participating in Mendoza’s Diversity and Heritage Ball was denied its choice of speaker because the University claimed the speaker, a drag queen, did not “align with the group’s mission.”

This regulation of clubs extends to which groups gain official recognition. Irish 4 Reproductive Health, a “reproductive justice” advocacy group at Notre Dame, has long been denied recognition. In a similar thread, the Saint Mary’s pro-life group Belles for Life recently alleged marginalization by College administration. In 2014, leading campus free speech advocates, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), intervened when the University “betrayed Notre Dame’s promises of free expression” by refusing to recognize Students for Child-Oriented Policy.

Notre Dame has a long and complicated history with freedom of expression. In 1969, President Nixon celebrated Notre Dame’s introduction of the 15-minute rule, which suppresses student participation in “violent or nonviolent” protests. That rule still stands.

Perhaps this may be a moment to reconsider whether we as a community are living up to our mission statement’s ideals of “insist[ing] upon academic freedom” and “provid[ing] a forum where through free inquiry and open discussion the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions and every other area of human scholarship and creativity.”

When the University takes steps to redefine what academic freedom means, we should all be concerned about the future of discourse on campus. Allowing our academics to participate in intellectual debate and dialogue with one another and on the national stage is essential to the role Notre Dame seeks to play in the world. We should never forget that.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.