Academic Un-Freedom at Princeton

July 20, 2020 Updated: July 27, 2020


More than 350 individuals, most of them professors, did something unbelievable this month at Princeton University—or maybe it was all too expected.

They signed an open letter, dated July 4, to the university president that contained the following demand:

“Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.”

We know what this means if it goes through. Inquiry will now undergo an extra stage of scrutiny, not just the standard peer review done by editors and readers at journals and presses, and by evaluators awarding grants and fellowships. There will also be a panel of professors at Princeton who will examine research that has been flagged as racist.

In such cases, we should consider not just the principles, but also the personnel of the committee. Who will end up serving on it? People with some experience in uncovering racism, of course. A chemistry professor teaching classes and running a research lab and preparing findings for publication doesn’t have the time or inclination to interrupt his work and sit in judgment of peers who are working in areas far from his own. A professor finishing her biography of Jane Austen and directing three dissertations feels the same way.

Furthermore, to qualify for the committee, one has to have some expertise in race issues, and also a conviction that racist research is indeed happening at Princeton. Were it not so, no committee would be necessary.

Academic Freedom

This issue here, however, isn’t one of race. It’s academic freedom. Academic freedom allows that research meeting academic norms of evidence and argument deserves a hearing. To apply non-disciplinary criteria to research is to narrow the enterprise, close off avenues of thought, and threaten the independence of the Ivory Tower.

The classic formulation of academic freedom is the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure (pdf) issued by the American Association of University Professors. The very first principle is this:

“Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the performance of their other academic duties.”

This freedom is not just an individual benefit, either, for “the common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.” Ensuring an open field of study, then, is crucial to the academic enterprise and a free society. And in that open arena are, most importantly, matters of tension and controversy.

The committee proposed by the Princeton letter will inevitably violate this principle. The members of the committee will end up stretching the definition of racism to the point of making phenomena such as disparate outcomes in employment and black-white score gaps on standardized tests dangerous territory for researchers. Academics will learn to stay away from such subjects.

This is how a “chill” works in a society such as ours. The authorities don’t declare outright, “Thou shalt not discuss ____.” Instead, they announce a prohibition of something that we all abhor, but give that thing fuzzy borders. What counts as a crime, then, is never altogether clear. People aren’t sure of where the line is drawn. What was OK a few years ago is no longer permitted. Hence, people stay away from the subject, playing it safe and watching what they say.

Princeton Professorate

Again, the remarkable thing about the Princeton letter is that this new scrutiny of faculty research comes from the professors themselves. No dictator above them decrees this surveillance. The researchers do it to themselves—or rather, a portion of them presumes to lay down the law for everyone else.

Several signers of the letter come from humanities departments, which is ironic, because the social thought that has dominated those departments for decades values dissent and reveres those who “speak truth to power.” Professors of language, literature, history, and the arts rally against “the hegemony,” and they sympathize with “Others” who’ve been “Othered” and removed from pathways of success.

And yet, what body of workers is more hegemonic than the Princeton professorate? What institution is more exclusionary than Princeton University, whose undergraduate acceptance rate is less than 6 percent? Each one of those professors got a job at Princeton through an application process that rejected hundreds of others. If there’s any group less justified in demanding for victims of discrimination within and perpetrated by their own institution, it’s the Princeton professorate.

One figure at Princeton has spoken loudly against the letter, Joshua Katz, professor of Classics. In an article in Quillette, Katz says he’s “embarrassed” for his colleagues who signed the letter. He’s exactly the type of brave individualist the signers otherwise admire. But, as may be expected, he’s undergoing forms of shunning now all-too-common in academia. He’s only one voice raised against 300 of his colleagues, but he must pay for his opposition.

Ordinarily, this should be an occasion for debate, but the signers of the letter have already shown their disinclination to argue. The passage I quoted above tells you where they stand: “We are the judges—you be quiet.”

What happened at Princeton is more than an embarrassment to the university. It’s a threat to the research mission everywhere. That so many figures at one of the distinguished centers of higher learning in the world should have joined this shabby exercise in leftist dogmatics tells you how far the rot of ideology has spread through the campus.

A question for parents: You would be overjoyed to learn that your children have been admitted to Princeton, yes, but would you really trust your children’s papers to be graded by the professors who signed this letter and endorse this investigative committee?

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory College. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, TLS, and Chronicle of Higher Education.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.