September 26,2019

Grassley Presses Influential Universities on Academic Freedom Concerns

WASHINGTON – Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) sent letters to the presidents of Duke University, Harvard University, Sarah Lawrence College and Villanova University seeking information on the current culture of academic freedom on their campuses. Grassley also expressed his concerns in an op-ed published today by the Wall Street Journal.

“Unfortunately, over the past year I have read a variety of media reports discussing incidents in higher education involving faculty suffering difficulties with or expressing concerns about teaching or researching topics that might challenge or encourage critical thinking about the conventional wisdom or a popular ideology of the day,” Grassley wrote. “Students who can work and think critically for themselves are best equipped to tackle the most difficult challenges we face and participate fully and effectively in our democracy. 

“A fundamental piece of this democracy-enabling purpose is that college and university professors should be free to teach and research – and students should be free to learn – to the best of their abilities in defiance of an undiscerning ’instinct to believe what others do.’ The United States’ higher education has long been the envy of the world for its ability to do just that. This letter respectfully requests information regarding the university’s commitment to creating such an educational environment in which its faculty can teach topics and take positions on matters that defy conventional wisdom and challenge orthodoxies in necessary but perhaps uncomfortable ways.”

Four recent examples of potential suppression of academic freedom come from Duke University, Harvard University, Sarah Lawrence College and Villanova University.

·        Duke University did not renew the contract of a popular, non-tenured professor, Evan Charney, on its campus after the university’s administration determined that he had a “tendency to provoke negative reactions, and perhaps harm, … some students in the classroom due to his confrontational teaching style — a style that had a tendency to be polarizing among students.” The award-winning professor taught in Duke’s public policy school for 20 years prior to his contract not being renewed. Hundreds of his former students have signed petitions or sent letters in support of Prof. Charney asking the university to reinstate him.

·        Harvard University declined to continue its relationship with Prof. Ronald S. Sullivan, Jr. and his wife, Prof. Stephanie Robinson, as faculty deans of Harvard’s undergraduate house, Winthrop House. The decision appears to have been made in response to protests on campus regarding Sullivan’s having agreed to join the legal defense team for an unpopular criminal defendant, namely Harvey Weinstein.

·        The office of a tenured professor at Sarah Lawrence College was vandalized after he wrote an op-ed, published in the New York Times, on the subject of political influence of school administrators on campus. Media reports called into question the college’s support for the professor after such vandalism and even indicate the administration may have taken a blame-the-victim approach to such an incident.

·        Two Villanova University professors recently wrote an op-ed, published in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that academia has gotten to the point where professors are afraid to teach even the slightest controversial material, such as Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain, out of fear of offending students, therefore losing academic freedoms for “human resources” reasons.

In his letters to Duke University and Villanova University Grassley also asks for details about those schools’ relatively new entities known as the “Bias Response Advisory Committee,” for Duke, and the “Bias Response Team,” for Villanova, and how these entities might otherwise affect the universities’ environments of free and open inquiry. This is particularly important when it comes to professors who might be reluctant to teach in good faith any given material out of a fear of being labeled as “biased.”  

Non-profit universities and colleges, including Duke University, Harvard University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Villanova University are tax-exempt. They generally describe their tax-exempt purposes as seeking “to promote an intellectual environment built on a commitment to free and open inquiry” or something to similar effect. It is critical that U.S. higher education remain a bastion of academic freedom rather than an echo chamber of single-minded thought that buckles under the weight of offending current sensitivities.

The Committee has requested responses from Duke University, Harvard University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Villanova University by October 25, 2019.

Text of those letters to Duke University, Harvard University, Sarah Lawrence College and Villanova University are available HERE.