Lines, Line-Drawing, and Consequences: An Academic Freedom Discussion Series

Every other Wednesday, from April 14th to June 9th, Lines, Line-Drawing, and Consequences will examine one of five archetypal values-related situations that arise on US campuses: 

    • responding to demands for exclusion or removal; 
    • expression in public vs. private campus spaces; 
    • distinguishing academic freedom from free speech; 
    • external pressures on campus discourse; and
    • navigating foreign partnerships.

Bringing to bear SAR’s 20+ years of experience, including SAR’s Promoting Higher Education Values workshop materials, SAR Executive Director Rob Quinn will lead a discussion about a particular paradigm, drawing on recent case examples. The sessions will be interactive, and will offer participants tools for assessing incidents and developing pro-values responses for their campus. 

Each session is open to all persons at Scholars at Risk (SAR) Network member organizations. To check if your organization is a member of SAR, click here. Persons at organizations that are not members of the SAR network or members of the public interested in attending may register and will be invited to attend subject to capacity limits.

During these discussions, we will be referencing SAR’s Promoting Higher Education Values Discussion Guide, with specific attention to the Expression Chart on pages 8-9.


Wednesday, April 14th 12:00pm EST

Session I: Leadership in the Age of Cancel Culture: Responding to Demands for Exclusion or Removal

The Chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder responds to calls for dismissal of a visiting professor who spoke alongside President Trump at the January 6th rally preceding the Capitol riots, following previous calls for the professor’s ‘cancelation’ after authoring a controversial op-ed.

The Provost of the University of Indiana at Bloomington (IU) issues a widely-circulated statement in response to mounting calls for the resignation of a business professor after his comments on Twitter fracture the academic community. IU later launches an investigation and the professor is placed on unpaid leave

Calls for ‘canceling’ faculty or staff have become increasingly common challenges for college and university leadership. How can higher education leaders address discontentment, in the form of concerns or demands, among their students, faculty, and staff? How can leaders assess the consistency with core higher education values? Using the case examples as a jumping off point, we will discuss the boundaries of academic freedom and free expression on campus, as they relate to  responses from leadership offices, with specific attention to calls for exclusion or removal.

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Wednesday, April 28th 12:00pm EST

Session II: Public or Private? Tensions Around Expression in Campus Spaces

At the University of Louisville, a student engages in “anti-gay pampleteering,” raising questions about protected speech and institutional responsibilty to intervene on behalf of marginalized groups. At Pepperdine, a student’s senior art exhibit is moved from the campus gallery due to its depiction of nude females. At Middlebury College, the challenges of navigating controversial speech are well-known, as the institution disinvited, and then re-invited, Charles Murray.  

Issues around controversial speech and expression have pressured colleges and universities to examine and articulate their values. Using the case examples as a jumping off point, we will explore how colleges and universities weigh the conduct, activities, and expression deemed permissible on their campus, and how public and private settings impact these considerations.  

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Wednesday, May 12th 12:00pm EST

Session III: Right to be Wrong?: When Academic Audiences Object to Academic Expression

A professor of economics at Lehigh University shares a video titled “Three Myths Concerning Poverty” which soon draws criticism from faculty and students regarding his analysis of poverty and race. Similarly, a New York University professor whose article, originally published in the Springer Nature journal, Society, draws condemnation from faculty and others across the United States. 

Everyone agrees that academic freedom protects a scholar’s right to articulate novel, controversial, challenging, or even offensive ideas. Or maybe not? Many argue that some ideas are too offensive, even harmful, especially when they perpetuate historical injustices. Are some ideas too offensive? If yes, how do we know which ones? Who decides? Using the case examples as a jumping off point, we will discuss scenarios where academic expression is challenged as too offensive for academic freedom protection.

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Wednesday, May 26th 12:00pm EST

Session IV: Who’s in charge here? Making the Case for Institutional Autonomy 

Legislation over faculty political views looms in the Iowa General Assembly. In Arkansas, House Bill 1218 aims to prohibit public colleges and universities from allowing classes, activities, or events that promote “division between, or resentment of, or social justice for” any race, gender, political affiliation, or social class.” Similar state impositions on institutional autonomy have gained traction in Georgia and Florida. 

Autonomy works to ensure the decisions about teaching, research, and academic standards, management, and related activities are made by those adequately trained within the scholarly community–not according to outside interference, be they political, commercial or in other forms. Using the case examples as a jumping off point, we will discuss the necessity for self-governance in decision-making and leadership to fulfill higher education’s public mission.

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Wednesday, June 9th 12:00pm EST

Session V:  Promises and Pitfalls: Navigating International Programs and Partnerships

At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the arrest of a prominent researcher for concealing China ties magnifies tensions around research partnerships, particularly those with China (following on the heels of scrutiny over MIT’s partnerships and contracts with Saudi Arabia). Students at Columbia University pass a referendum calling for institutional divestment from companies that “profit from or engage in the State of Israel’s acts toward Palestinians,” reflecting one of the most divisive debates across college and university campuses in the United States, and generating this response from Columbia’s Office of the President. 

Geopolitical tensions within the higher education sector are far from new, but boundary-spanning financial and intellectual ties have become increasingly nuanced. What happens when academic programs or partnerships are viewed as contrary to the values of the higher education community? Using the case examples as a jumping off point, we will discuss concerns that arise from cross-border activities or partnerships. 

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