When Academic Freedom Proves a One-Way Street

It requires considerable discipline to be consistent on issues of academic freedom. Conservatives, for example, have expressed outrage at the cancelation of extracurricular campus lectures by right-wing figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. At the same time, many have been conspicuously silent about legislative restrictions on high school reading lists, as well as the University of Florida’s now-rescinded prohibition on litigation consulting by political science professors. Progressives may be subject to the same impulse, vigorously defending academic freedom in their own circumstances while unapologetically denying it to their political adversaries. Consider, for example, the views of Pitzer College’s Professor Daniel Segal – acting president of the Claremont Colleges chapter of the American Association of University Professors – who denounces even indirect constraints on his own classroom freedom, while seeking to prevent other well-qualified faculty from teaching anything at all.

In a recent post on the AAUP’s Academe Blog, Segal shared the story of his investigation by Pitzer College’s Title IX coordinator for “harassment on the grounds of sex/gender [and] ancestry,” based on alleged incidents in his world history course. The charges, in Segal’s telling, were not merely frivolous; they also implicated “speech and conduct self-evidently integral to the delivery of legitimate course content.” Although he was eventually cleared of misconduct, in a victory for academic freedom, the 126-day adjudication process took a heavy toll. Segal was forced to retain counsel, spend “the plurality, and perhaps the majority, of [his] work time” responding to the allegations, and, worst of all, reconsider the content of his classes with a view toward avoiding future student complaints. Despite the favorable outcome, in which he was cleared of all charges, the “debilitating” procedures led Segal to the conclusion that “academic freedom protections for faculty are not intact at Pitzer College.”

“I know that this experience has impacted my teaching,” Segal explained. In some class sessions, “it has led me to ‘not go there,’ that is, to not explore certain examples or lines of thought that I otherwise would—and should—have pursued.” The solution to this problem, Segal persuasively argues, is to institute a more rigorous screening at the very beginning of the process, readily dismissing complaints that have no possible merit. The alternative, as in his case, can only have a “chilling effect on speech and conduct in teaching.”

I nodded in agreement as I read Segal’s post and, because I was not familiar with him, I checked out his faculty webpage at Pitzer College, which led me in turn to his personal blog. To my dismay, I discovered that Segal’s commitment to academic freedom has a glaring limitation. Although his own teaching must be protected from even the threat of a student complaint, he evidently believes that certain other faculty should be completely denied professional discretion to conduct their courses in the format they see fit. [Ed. – Segal responds in a post here.]

Segal objects to an on-line course called “The Beginning of Science: Ancient Egyptian and Babylonian Conception of Space and Time,” co-taught by professor Sarah Symons at Canada’s McMaster University and professor Eshbal Ratson of Israel’s Tel Aviv University. Although the course itself has nothing to do with the current Middle East conflict, Segal opposes its very existence at McMaster, in keeping with the BDS (boycott, divest, sanctions) movement against Israel.

In other words, Segal believes that willing faculty at McMaster University (and presumably at Pitzer College and elsewhere) should be prohibited from teaching about any subject, including even the ancient world, in collaboration with anyone who happens to work at an Israeli university. “Virtual or online educational partnerships,” he says, “deserve our boycott as much as those that happen in person.”

Recognizing that he has proposed a seemingly severe limitation on academic freedom, Segal rationalizes that Symons and Ratson remain able “to communicate and collaborate as individual scholars.” That is true but irrelevant. After all, Pitzer’s 126-day investigation of Segal likewise left him free to communicate as an individual scholar. Although Segal does not advocate totally obliterating the academic freedom of the two professors, he does argue that McMaster’s Symons should be barred from co-teaching with the colleague of her choice. Even if Ratson were one of the world’s leading experts on Babylonian space and time conceptions (note: she is; her ancient language skills include Aramaic, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Greek, Geez, Hebrew, and Arabic), Segal would not allow Symons’s students the benefit of her teaching in their curriculum.

The hypocrisy is overwhelming. When it comes to his own teaching choices, Segal protests even hypothetical – indeed, subconscious – impingements on his freedom of expression. When it comes to others, however, he believes that he and his confreres ought to be able to dictate their choice of co-teachers, based on politics and nationality.

In his Academe Blog post, Segal argues that “academic freedom protections shield all conduct and speech made in the delivery of legitimate course content” (italics in original). I tend to agree with him, but of course I would extend that principle to “The Beginning of Science: Ancient Egyptian and Babylonian Conception of Space and Time,” no matter who is teaching it. Anything less is simply self-aggrandizement, and that gives academic freedom a bad name.


Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. He is the author most recently of Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters.

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Steven Lubet

Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and author of Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters, and other books such as 2015's The “Colored Hero” Of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland And The War Against Slavery and Lawyers' Poker: 52 Lessons That Lawyers Can Learn From Card Players. He is the director of the Fred Bartlit Center for Trial Advocacy. He has been living with ME/CFS since 2006.

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