Law expert talks academic freedom from political involvement

Wednesday, November 28, 2018 - 9:47pm

This annual lecture has hosted different leaders in their fields to speak about different aspects of educational policies and expression for academics.

This annual lecture has hosted different leaders in their fields to speak about different aspects of educational policies and expression for academics. Buy this photo
Alexis Rankin/Daily

The University of Michigan Faculty Senate hosted its 28th Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom Wednesday afternoon featuring Gene Nichol, a law professor at the University of North Carolina. The annual lecture hosts different leaders to speak about different aspects of educational policies and expression for academics.

H. Chandler Davis, Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson were University professors in the 1950s who, in 1954, refused to give testimonies before the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities, invoking their constitutional right to not disclose their political associations. The trio was suspended from the University, with only Markert asked to return. This lecture honors the three professors’ adherence to the values of academic freedom.

Academic freedom has been a hot topic on the University’s campus this semester after a professor and graduate student instructor declined to write letters of recommendations for students applying to study abroad in Israel. Administrators disciplined the professor, John Cheney-Lippold of the American Culture Department, claiming his action did not “support students’ academic growth.”

Members of the University community have been outspoken about their opinions on the instructors’ actions and the University’s response, and several events and panels have sought to foster campus discussion around the topic. Some have felt the University’s response has been inadequate, while others argue the University’s punishment of Cheney-Lippold was unwarranted. Public Health student Melissa Makled attended a panel on academic freedom held this Tuesday and said she was curious to see where the University will take this issue in the future.

“I’ve been unimpressed with the University’s response and I really liked the Graduate Employees Organization’s response,” Makled said at Tuesday’s event. “I really liked the nuance in their stance because they say it’s not a political decision, but a matter of academic freedom.” 

At the Faculty Senate lecture, Neil Marsh, chair of the University’s central faculty governance, gave the introductory remarks. Marsh noted upholding these values “requires continuous vigilance and courage.”

“This lecture is an example that academic and intellectual freedom are essential … for a university,” Marsh said.

Nichol, who described himself as a self-proclaimed “devotee of public universities,” detailed his personal pitfalls and views on the unique struggles that public universities have in terms of constitutional rights, specifically the issue of freedom of speech.

“The constitution itself is not self-triggering,” Nichol said. “It often requires blood and sacrifice and bravery.”

Nichol cited this bravery specifically as intellectual courage as he went on to explain the main problem public universities face: the intersection of free speech and equal protection. He gave the example of boycotts, as well as sexual harassment and bullying policies as measures that threaten to weaponize the freedom of speech.

“When a University is sued for implementing harassment and bullying policies, the dispute usually presents competing and colliding essential constitutional values of equality and expression,” Nichol said. “When a faculty member or a graduate student participates in an expressive boycott, speech and equal protection guarantees can meet head on. Perhaps the collision can be avoided, but it’s not always easy work.”

Nichol also detailed his personal struggles with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At UNC, the governing boards are handpicked by state legislative leadership, which, according to Nichol, causes administrative suppression.

“Academic freedom is deeply weakened in places, including my home,” Nichol said. “If the last decade has taught us anything, it is that there are fewer fixed stars, fewer uncontested, consensus-based constitutional standards and patterns of behavior that we might have supposed,” Nichol said. “Who would have thought, for example, that a dominant political party would take as a central agenda point the suppression of the effective exercise of the right to vote. Who would have guessed a large segment of political leadership would overtly seek to limit the active participation of African Americans without shame or embarrassment?”

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