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The New England Journal of MedicineAcademic Freedom in America — In Support of Institutional Voices

Examining the interplay between academic freedom and institutional responsibility, with historical context and implications for public health.

This commentary discusses the ongoing debate about academic freedom within university settings, particularly when faculty members’ public statements may have significant implications for public health. The authors, drawing from historical precedents and recent controversies, argue for a balanced approach where universities can voice their perspectives without infringing on individual academic freedom, especially when public safety is at stake.

Key Points:

  • Historical Context: Academic freedom in the US has been shaped by key events, such as the 1900 Ross Affair at Stanford University, which led to the establishment of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and their 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.
  • AAUP’s Influence: The AAUP’s principles were aimed at protecting faculty from institutional interference in their research, teaching, or public statements. These principles were later reflected in US Supreme Court rulings, such as the 1957 Sweezy v. New Hampshire case.
  • Scott Atlas Controversy: During the COVID-19 pandemic, Stanford faced controversy over the public statements of Scott Atlas, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, who opposed mask mandates and supported natural herd immunity. This raised questions about the limits of academic freedom when public health is at risk.
  • Institutional Reticence: Stanford’s decision not to publicly oppose Atlas’s statements was defended as a measure to protect academic freedom. However, the authors argue that this silence might imply tacit approval of harmful opinions, especially when such opinions contradict the consensus in relevant fields of expertise.
  • Relative Freedom: Academic freedom, like free speech, is not absolute. It must be balanced against other rights and responsibilities, especially when public safety is concerned.
  • Expertise vs. Opinion: The authors emphasize the importance of distinguishing between expertise and opinion. Public statements by faculty should ideally be within their domain of expertise to avoid misleading the public.
  • Intramural vs. Extramural Expression: The article highlights the difference between internal university matters and public expressions by faculty. Universities can and should speak out when faculty opinions might harm public health, without this being seen as suppression of academic freedom.
  • Institutional Responsibility: Universities have a responsibility to protect their reputations and the public by clarifying their positions on controversial issues. This is particularly important when faculty opinions might be misconstrued as institutional endorsements.
  • Advisory Groups: The authors propose forming advisory groups within universities, similar to hospital ethics committees, to provide balanced and expert-backed public statements on contentious issues.
  • Statesmanship in University Leadership: University leaders need to exercise judgment and statesmanship, rather than strictly adhering to policies like the 1967 Kalven Report, which recommended institutional silence on controversial social or political issues.

“If a university does not speak for itself, the voices of its professors become its voice, and their reputation its reputation.”

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