How academic freedom might be protected, or not
As the FAS Senate meets with administrators to deliberate on next steps in addressing academic freedom, professors weigh in on the range of policies that could possibly be implemented — or whether any changes are necessary.
Yale Daily News
Members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate met with representatives from the Office of Development and University counsel on Wednesday morning to discuss academic freedom at Yale, continuing conversations that have persisted throughout the semester.
The issue was brought to the forefront of campus discourse in September, when history professor Beverly Gage resigned as director of the Grand Strategy program after the administration failed to stave off donor influence on the program. She attributed the decision to the program’s main donors, Nicholas Brady ’52 and Charles Johnson ’54 who, agitated by program changes made by Gage as well as an op-ed written by program-affiliated professor of political science Bryan Garsten, successfully pressured the University into implementing a majority-conservative program advisory committee. In an ensuing Oct. 17 resolution, the senate demanded that the University establish a faculty committee to recommend policies that protect academic freedom. As deliberations over next steps continue, however, it has not been immediately clear what policy options might be available.
FAS executive committee members who were present at the Wednesday meeting were unable to provide specific details of the meeting, though Senate Chair Valerie Horsley said that some may be announced at the next senate meeting on Dec. 16.
Still, a number of professors across the University suggested an array of potential policy changes that they believe could safeguard academic freedom in the future. Others, however, said that academic freedom remains strong on campus and that changes are not necessary.
In reaction to the Dec. 1 FAS senate meeting, seven professors spoke to the News about academic freedom, with five recommending various possible steps and two objecting to their necessity. In an October interview with the News, Gage suggested that greater transparency be afforded to donor agreement discussions and that a University ombudsman be designated as a neutral third party to arbitrate future disputes.
The senate’s resolution did list two specific courses of action: a review of existing University agreements and commitments, and the establishment of a process through which perceived violations of academic freedom may be addressed. These protections should be incorporated into the Faculty Handbook, the resolution reads.
Professor of computer science Michael Fischer said that he believes the resolution does not go far enough and that the senate should demand a clear statement from the administration granting faculty greater power over academic affairs. Otherwise, the senate may not have enough power to effect change, he said.
“They now can try to review documents and make recommendations, but I think they’re limited in what they’ll be able to accomplish,” Fischer said.
Several faculty, including John Gaddis, professor of history and founder of the Grand Strategy program, advocated for more explicit protections in both existing and future donor agreements. Professor emeritus of history Glenda Gilmore suggested that while such agreements are typically kept confidential, a public standard clause concerning academic freedom could be developed and included in each agreement. Fischer, meanwhile, said that future gift agreements should be put up to the full faculty or the senate for approval.
Law professor Akhil Amar ’84, who spoke about academic freedom at a senate meeting on Oct. 28, suggested that senate or faculty members could conduct a full review of the Woodward Report, a 1974 document that many regard as a bedrock of academic freedom principles on university campuses. He noted the Woodward Report was crafted in response to controversies regarding invited speakers — a very different set of incidents than those of today. Amar added that it would be appropriate to produce a new report or supplement to address more possible circumstances of academic freedom violations.
“The difficult thing is that there are many complicated applications of academic freedom because there are many moving parts of a university,” Amar said.
Professor of English David Bromwich lauded the strength of the Woodward Report and called for copies to be distributed to first years and new faculty to promote the principle on campus. Gilmore further said that principles of academic freedom may not be universally understood by potential donors and should be more explicitly discussed during the gifting process.
“We assume that we have academic freedom until we run into a roadblock,” Gilmore said.
Other professors questioned whether academic freedom on campus is indeed being violated. University spokesperson Karen Peart has previously pointed to the Faculty Handbook and Woodward Report as evidence of Yale’s strong protections of academic freedom.
“Yale has never interfered with any of my publications, speeches, appearances or anything else, in any way,” professor of computer science David Gelernter wrote in an email to the News. “As far as I (at any rate) can see, Yale has no problem with ‘academic freedom’ right at the moment.”
Professor of political science Steven Smith agreed, stating that he is unaware of any University commitments or donor agreements, including the Grand Strategy agreement, that restrict academic freedom.
The News has not been able to confirm whether the 2006 gift agreement that endowed the Grand Strategy program or other endowment agreements include language regarding academic freedom.
“It is hard for me to see what a committee like this might actually investigate,” Smith said of the group of FAS members meeting with administrators in an email to the News. “In short, I am suspicious until some proof is given of specific agreements that infringe on academic freedom/freedom of thought and discussion.”
David King, an independent nonprofit consultant who specializes in major gifts and donations and is not affiliated with the University, explained that donors — often influential parents or alumni — are typically viewed as a “captive audience” with close ties to the university community. That, and the fact that many university donations reach seven-figure totals much higher than those that other nonprofits receive, means that university donors are usually treated with greater accommodations.
In his experience, he added, donors have more sway over particularly large gift agreements, and those agreements are rarely reviewed or amended.
The FAS Senate was established in 2013.