A blog about academic freedom and other issues in higher education, from John K. Wilson
Friday, July 17, 2020
The Problem with Princeton’s Racism Committee Proposal
By John K. Wilson
More than 100 professors at Princeton have signed a letter proposing reforms in the wake of Black Lives Matter. The letter contains a lot of good ideas (which I suspect is what the signers support), but unfortunately it also has one particularly bad idea: “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.”
This is not a difficult call. The proposed rule is a terrible idea, and a clear violation of academic freedom. Regulations of racist publications (and, even broader, “incidents”) are a real threat to free expression, even when faculty are the ones assigned to endanger academic freedom.
Andrew Cole, a professor of English at Princeton, wrote a defense of the letter and offered his analysis of academic freedom. Cole argues: “In free speech, you can say most anything. In academic freedom, you can’t. It’s not anything goes, and it’s baffling that so many conflate ‘free speech’ with ‘academic freedom’ — because the University itself certainly doesn’t. It regards research to be a matter of faculty conduct and, where appropriate, disciplinary response: ‘Members of the Princeton community have a duty to foster a climate that encourages ethical conduct of scholarly research. They also have a responsibility to report if ever they encounter serious indications of misconduct in research.’”
Unfortunately, the belief that free speech and academic freedom are radically different concepts is a common mistake, even within the AAUP. In reality, academic freedom and free speech are very close cousins. Academic freedom is the application of free speech principles to the academic context, and academic freedom protects an enormous amount of free speech for faculty. As Cole correctly points out, “serious indications of misconduct” can be investigated and punished. But except for that rare occurrence, research is protected by a very broad understanding of academic freedom. Expressing bad ideas in research (or what someone thinks is racist) is not punishable unless it meets the strict terms of research misconduct. You can be evaluated for bad research during hiring and promotion decisions, but not punished for bad research in a disciplinary decision. That’s an absolutely crucial distinction that Cole ignores.
Cole claims that racist research counts as research misconduct: “The University is also clear to describe as ‘misconduct’ research that is, to take one example, ‘a threat to public health.’” He goes on to point out that “racism is factually a “‘threat to public health,’” including “murderous policing” and racial disparities in longevity.
The mistake Cole makes here is contending that any research with bad ideas is therefore misconduct. The logic Cole uses is this: Professor X argues for Idea Y. I think Idea Y is harmful to public health. Therefore, Professor X’s research is harmful to public health and a form of misconduct.
Clearly, the intent of the “misconduct” rule on threats to health is to prevent dangerous research when the research study causes direct harm to the subjects. It was never meant to apply to research which expresses support for political views that someone thinks are bad and will therefore harm people.
If Cole’s interpretation of misconduct were true, it would pose a severe threat to public health by discouraging research on issues of public health. Suppose someone did research on defunding the police. If they support defunding, someone can bring them up on charges of misconduct because defunding police leads to higher murder rates. If they oppose defunding, they can be blamed for supporting “murderous policing.” Either position could be a threat to public health, depending on your beliefs. Who will get fired? Maybe the one with unpopular views.
It’s also noteworthy that the proposal Cole defends is not limited to racist ideas that harm people. It applies to all research deemed racist, even if it’s a study of literature with no conceivable threat to public health.
Cole claims, “is anti-Black research or anti-Latinx publication “ethical”? The University must pose this question.” No, the University must not pose this question. By declaring that only research deemed “racist” is subjected to special scrutiny, Princeton would be creating an indefensible standard. Why not also ban “sexist” or “homophobic” research? Indeed, why not just make it universal and ban “wrong” research with “bad” effects?
The whole point of academic freedom is to reject this approach. If you punish all “racist” or “bad” research, it will inevitably have a chilling effect on professors who want to challenge the status quo. Even if the faculty evaluating these cases are thoughtful and reasonable, how many professors want to be brought up before the “racism” committee and have their thoughts investigated for possible racism?
Cole may find it tempting to say that racist research is evil, and he doesn’t mind if it gets silenced. But who gets to define racism? Plenty of critics of Israel are accused of anti-Semitism and racism, and they could quite easily occupy most of the complaints to a “racism committee.” Even if the committee never punishes them, the label of being “racist” could be used against innocent professors and silence important research about race. Supporters of Black Lives Matter are commonly accused of anti-white racism, and it is possible that the racism committee would be occupied with complaints about their views.
We already have a way to punish racist research: Criticism. Everyone is free to denounce everyone else for their racist ideas. If you don’t like racist research, call it out and convince others that you’re right. But a separate system to punish faculty for racism is an awful idea that threatens academic freedom.