Panelists at lecture explore challenges to academic freedom


Three scholars dedicated to defending free academic inquiry and instruction spoke about academic freedom at home and abroad during the 30th annual Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Academic Freedom Lecture.

U-M President Mark Schlissel said in his opening remarks that the Feb. 16 lecture was especially timely given a rapidly-changing world that includes “tremendous challenges to our values and institutions.”

“We live in an era where others seek to define the role of universities, not for the good of all but for their own ends,” he said. “Many even attempt to subvert the work that we do, along with the scholarly and scientific processes that produce knowledge and lead to conclusions.

“I believe that we all bear the responsibility for the constant vigilance required to defend academic freedom.”

Moderator Melanie S. Tanielian, associate professor of history, said the American academy faced intimidation, discreditation, investigation and threats of defunding over the last four years under former President Donald Trump.

The election of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris might appease some people, she said, but encroachments on academic freedom do not simply depend on who inhabits the White House.

“Instead, we ask what are the broader changes in the landscape that will continue to pose challenges to academic freedom at home and abroad as we move forward,” she said.

The first panelist, Nadje S. Al-Ali, Robert Family Professor of International Studies and professor of anthropology and Middle East studies at Brown University, said it’s important to think about academic freedom in historically specific terms, rather than in the abstract. That way, she said, people are forced to take a more holistic approach in terms of understanding its challenges and also advocating for it.

Al-Ali said at academic institutions there’s a clear connection between levels of academic freedom and levels of transparency and accountability within administration. She also spoke about the complexity and challenges of balancing academic freedom with the risk of harmful speech.

“We will have to negotiate the very principles that inform our respective conceptualizations and recognize that there may be tensions in what we view as priorities in any historical moment,” she said.

“These days the political right is not only cracking down on academic freedom in different contexts, but has started to simultaneously become fierce advocates of freedom of speech, thereby not only engaging in aggressive anti-intellectualism, but also giving space and platforms to ideas and practices that are counter to principles of equality and  justice.”

The next panelist, Susan Benesch, faculty associate at Harvard University, adjunct professor at American University and director of the Dangerous Speech Project, said efforts to regulate speech on U.S. campuses satisfy no one and often lead to controversy and conflict.

After each speech controversy, she said, campus groups bifurcate: one standing under a banner of free speech, and another standing under a banner of hate speech. Because there are many contradictory definitions of hate speech, she said the bifurcation is distracting and confusing and just creates more conflict.

She offered possible tools to remedy that. 

“Focus on the harms that the group is attempting to prevent and then reverse engineer, if you like, to decide which speech is likely to engender those harms,” she said. “Though it is difficult to agree on which speech to permit and which to restrict, it is much easier to agree on which harms a group would like to prevent.”

The final panelist, Michael Bérubé, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature and immediate past chair of the University Faculty Senate at Pennsylvania State University, said a robust theory of academic freedom must be premised on the idea of equality.

“If we do not presume at the outset the equal dignity and value of all humans, we will inevitably create regimes of abstract ‘freedom’ in which some people have to argue for their right to exist as equals as a precondition for arguing anything else,” he said. “This is freedom on a steeply tilted playing field.”

The academic freedom lecture is organized by U-M’s Faculty Senate and named after three faculty members: Chandler Davis, Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson. Davis attended and participated in the Feb. 16 lecture.

Davis, Markert and Nickerson were called in 1954 to testify before a panel of the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities. All of them 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.

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.



  1. Christopher Godwin
    on February 19, 2021 at 2:15 pm

    I’ve been thinking that this could be right out of an episode of South Park.

    Rather than have faculty who’ve been the direct recipients of censorship, aka “cancel culture,” vis-a-vis academic freedom, you presented yet another panel of establishment-types with predictable arguments base on painting Trump as the bogeyman.

    The apparent lack of self-awareness among faculty in Western academia is truly breathtaking: the real threat to academic freedom comes from within the faculty itself, not from outside. You could have had people like Brett Weinstein, Nicholas and Erika Christakis, Michael Rechtenwald, et al., contribute to this lecture series but apparently our faculty don’t have the courage to look within. Shame on you. Maybe you can try to do better next year.

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