Panel to consider current challenges to academic freedom


Three scholars will discuss the various challenges facing academic freedom during a popular lecture that is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

The annual Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Academic Freedom Lecture will be open to the public via Zoom from 4-6 p.m. Feb. 16. U-M’s Faculty Senate is organizing and sponsoring the event, and a recording will be available at

The lecture, titled “Challenges to Academic Freedom in a Changing Landscape, at Home and Abroad,” will feature:

  • Nadje S. Al-Ali, Robert Family Professor of International Studies and professor of anthropology and Middle East studies at Brown University.
  • Susan Benesch, faculty associate at Harvard University, adjunct professor at American University and director of the Dangerous Speech Project.
  • Michael Bérubé, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and immediate past chair of the University Faculty Senate at Pennsylvania State University.

Melanie S. Tanielian, associate professor of history and director of U-M’s Center for Armenian Studies, will serve as the moderator.

Faculty Senate Chair Colleen Conway said academic freedom has always been at the core of faculty work, but this year’s lecture feels especially relevant.

“In addition to this being the 30th anniversary, I feel like it’s particularly timely given what I’m calling the climate of disagreement that we are currently experiencing not only on our campus, but all over the country,” she said. “Who can say what, and what’s allowed to be said, and what’s reasonable to say, seem like they’re things that are being constantly questioned and considered all over the place.”

This year marks the first time that the lecture will be held as a panel discussion. Each panelist will speak about his or her area of expertise, and then a question-and-answer session will follow. President Mark Schlissel will give opening remarks. H. Chandler Davis, one of the men for whom the lecture is named, will introduce the panelists.

Descriptions of the panelists’ topics come from their statements and biographical information provided by the Faculty Senate Office.

Al-Ali, whose main research interests revolve around feminist activism and gendered mobilization, will make the case for a historicized, empirically grounded and nuanced discussion of academic freedom as its meaning can change depending on time and context. In addition, she will address the double standard apparent in some of the debates on academic freedom as well as the inherent tensions between defending freedom of speech while not giving platforms to ideas and practices that run counter to the principles of equality and justice.

Benesch’s lecture is titled, “Academic freedom of speech or freedom of reach?”

As the founder and director of the Dangerous Speech Project, Benesch studies rhetoric that can inspire violence and tries to find ways to prevent it without infringing on freedom of expression. The human rights lawyer and her colleagues conduct research on methods to diminish harmful speech online, or the harm itself. She said she “regularly foists related ideas” on social media companies in an effort to improve both content moderation and user behavior. 

Bérubé’s lecture will focus on the topic, “Should academic freedom extend to the work of white supremacist professors?”

“The question became inescapable in 2020, but it has been lingering for at least the last five years,” Bérubé’s statement said. “Academic freedom has never been well understood, and it has lately become increasingly conflated with free speech.”

Bérubé said he will argue that the belief that white people are superior to nonwhite people has poisoned so-called “Western culture” for more than 500 years and reached an apex in the early 20th century, when pseudoscientific racism laid the groundwork for eugenics and genocide. He said the belief is now re-emerging in public life and has no place in any legitimate educational institution.

The academic freedom lecture is named after three U-M faculty members: Davis, Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson. They were called in 1954 to testify before a panel of the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities. All three invoked their constitutional rights and refused to answer questions about their political associations.

The men were suspended from the university. Davis and Nickerson were fired. Markert was retained but censured, and he left the university soon afterward.

Several years later, there was a push to get the Board of Regents to apologize for what happened. The board did not issue an apology, so U-M’s Senate Assembly passed a resolution in 1990 that deeply regretted “the failure of the University Community to protect the values of intellectual freedom” in 1954, and established the annual lecture in honor of the three men.


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