Yale Daily News

The Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy was extraordinary for several reasons. One of the reasons it was so distinctive is that the group of graduate and undergraduate students were not only able to question power dynamics in a classroom setting, but were also endowed with their own sense of power. In setting out to equip the future leaders of the United States, the program gave students a path to this power, shared among world leaders and international authorities, introducing it to them in the safety of the classroom.

And for a significant number of students, that ability to simulate these experiences was one of the most rewarding aspects of the program. “It is a phenomenal training ground for thinkers,” said Clint Bartlet, an alumnus of the “Studies in Grand Strategy for Global Affairs” course from 2016-17. “It’s meant to help people assimilate knowledge, and we need that. In the next century, we need this kind of problem solving.”

This attention to problem solving, in many ways, is the centerpiece for the curriculum. This is further made possible by the length of the program. The program requires an application process with a deadline in late November each year and continues into two semesters — with the addition of a summer research funding opportunity. The amount of time spent enables the program to complete its aim, as articulated by the Grand Strategy website, “to provide students with a comprehensive approach to achieving large ends with limited means.” This is partly done through access to faculty members that are well-established in the fields of government, military and other industries that function at the national level, as well as an extensive reading list with authors like Thucididyes, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass.

“I felt very impoverished for not having studied the classics at an undergraduate level,” Bartlett said, who joined the program as a graduate student. “And so when I saw this on the curriculum, I thought, ‘This is amazing.’ Not only do I get to read this stuff, but I get to read it within the context of very, very impressive and experienced teachers or faculty.”

But beyond just interrogating these texts, students were often expected to employ the lessons from the text. Bartlett described one of his most memorable experiences in Grand Strategy as one of the assignments he had to complete for the class: “You had to produce a policy brief to the [federal] administration. So we have to look at this kind of foreign policy, this kind of moral standing, this kind of value, etc. I will never forget the kind of studying around that, no doubt, was being mimicked on a much broader scale, just ourselves.”

And it was this notion of “grand strategy,” of “significant, massive, highly-scaled kind of thinking that drew [him] like a magnet,” which has been a staple of the curriculum since its conception in 2000. Notably, there have been a few changes since professor Beverly Gage’s appointment as head of the program. Gage, who began leading the program in 2017, expanded the curriculum to include more discussions of domestic policy that included grassroots social and civil rights movements that were in better dialogue with the current moment.

However, not everyone has approved of this change. This September, it was revealed that there was an attempt by two significant donors of the program to influence the course. An advisory board largely composed of conservative figures, including Henry A. Kissinger, former secretary of state under former President Richard M. Nixon and the recipient of Gage’s largest objection, was instituted. This advisory board would oversee the management of the curriculum to ensure that the program gives space to conservative figures and ideologies.

In response to the donor pressure, Gage resigned. And with her departure from this course arrived a series of concerns from the Yale school community about the state of academic freedom at the University.

Donor influence is a concern that exists in many institutions, as not only is their influence dramatic, but often implicit in the sense that the extent of their influence is not usually public knowledge.

So when the fact of these donors’ influence became just that, Bartlett was certainly concerned, but as he put it, “I have no doubt that these things have happened before. I think that this kind of question has been tested, maybe even as early as universities. And I think that’s important to give some context, that it is not new.”

The Context

While the idea of the universitas has been established since the 15th century, it wasn’t until the early 20th century — with the advent of industrialization — that a sense for universities’ economic and social roles, via engaging with outside organizations and identifying their positionality to government, began to materialize. For the most part, universities operated under religious authority, specifically the pope in Europe. As universities started to rely on private and public funding sources, the question of academic freedom emerged: professors and scholars began to qualify the definition beyond the boundaries of inquiry that was brought about by religious reformation.

In the United States, the threat to academic freedom reared its head during the Red Scare, the mass hysteria concerning communism that expanded during the ’40s and ’50s. A national debate rang as attempts were made to dismiss Communist Party members from teaching positions, labeling faculty members as “subversive” and “communist.” Teachers became terrified of teaching any subject matter that seemed controversial, so much so that self-censorship — in addition to state-sanctioned censorship — often took place. Academic freedom became tied to the idea of national security.

During this era of McCarthyism, the practice of publicly probing the presence of communism in the United States via public trials and persistent accusation, the concerned intervention of ideology into academic spheres became evident. This is partly demonstrated in the 6-3 1952 Supreme Court decision in Adler v. Board of Education to uphold the Feinberg Law, a New York statute which banned any teacher that called for the overthrow of the government from teaching in public schools. Outside organizations like the National Education Association would publish weekly articles about the threat of communism to education, sometimes listing the names of suspected educators as a way to stir up suspicion.

The threat to academics was also seen at institutions of higher education. In 1952, the Internal Security Subcommittee of the United States Senate conducted hearings to investigate “the subversive influences into the nation’s educational system.” Thus, this threat seen at the legislative level was eventually enforced at the institutional one. Specific colleges, and certain professors teaching within them, were called upon to ask about the way in which their classroom contributed to this nationally identified security threat.  On Oct. 13, 1952, a New York University associate professor of English suspected of subversion was called before the subcommittee. Invoking his First and Fifth amendment rights, he refused  to respond to the committee’s questions  and afterwards was immediately suspended by the chancellor of NYU, who claimed the professor had made “a breach of his duty to the government and to the university.”

This was the case at other institutions with varying severities of reactions: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Cornell relieved faculty members at full pay; John Hopkins University retained the accused faculty member at full salary, allowing him time to properly commit himself to his defense; conversely at Temple University, a professor of philosophy was unanimously not reinstated, nor was an associate professor of physics at the Ohio State University.  Eventually, the national temper quelled, and the concern for communism calmed down. But the threats to academic freedom did not cease after the Cold War era. The dissonance between the intellectual happenings of an institution and the politics of its administration contribute to the dilemma over academic freedom in university curriculums today.

“The competence of the administration is not in teaching, the competence of the administration is not in research,” professor Robert Post explained.

Post is a Sterling Professor of law at Yale Law School, specializing in First Amendment constitutional law. He has published a series of books on the topic, including “Democracy, Expertise, Academic Freedom: A First Amendment Jurisprudence for the Modern State.” As he explained, the threat to academic freedom often comes when the two interests conflict.

He continued to explain: “And so when they make judgments, they’re making judgments from a managerial perspective.” Thus, the administration’s priority is more concerned with ensuring academics are taking place, as opposed to its freedoms.

How academic freedom is defined at the institutional level varies as each institution generally sets the policy for themself. Academic freedom generally contains four components: the freedom of teaching, freedom of research and publication, freedom of extramural speech — the right of an educator to speak as a citizen — and then freedom of intramural speech — the right to participate in matters of community governance by speaking about decisions affecting the university.

“Academic freedom means that the freedom of a professor to do any of these things is to be determined by the professional standards of competence applicable to the professor,” Post stated. 

When it comes to academic freedom for students, “we don’t have any account that’s commonly agreed upon,” Post said. “And typically when we speak about academic freedom for students, we speak about it as the negative inverse of academic freedom for faculty. So if the faculty has an obligation not to indoctrinate a student then that student has an academic freedom not to be indoctrinated.”

But what happens when that freedom is violated?

The Ambiguity

When news first broke out about Gage stepping down, another professor — who is currently in the midst of a lawsuit concerning academic freedom — saw immediate resonance with her own experience. 

“I was inundated with messages when [Gage’s] case became public,” professor Bandy Lee admitted. “There was an obvious link in people’s minds.” 

Bandy X. Lee was a formerly Yale-affiliated faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine as well as Yale College. Similar to Gage, her situation amassed an abundance of attention after she was fired for a tweet she wrote commenting on the Trump administration. On Jan. 2, 2020, she tweeted, “Alan Dershowitz’s employing the odd use of ‘perfect’ — not even a synonym — might be dismissed as ordinary influence in most contexts. However, given the severity and spread of ‘shared psychosis’ among just about all of Donald Trump’s followers, a different scenario is more likely. Which scenario? That he has wholly taken on Trump’s symptoms by contagion. There is even proof: his bravado toward his opponent with a question about his own sex life — in a way that is irrelevant to the actual lawsuit — shows the same grandiosity and delusional-level impunity.” Dershowitz, a lawyer on Trump’s legal team and recipient of Lee’s comment, responded to the tweet with a letter to Yale administrators accusing Lee of violating the ethics rules as listed by the American Psychiatric Association, calling for disciplinary action in the process. Since then, Lee has pursued legal action for what she affirms is an “unlawful termination.” As articulated in the lawsuit, she has criticized Yale as having committed “the tort of negligent misrepresentation by not adhering to its policies on academic freedom.” 

Lee’s complaints against the University are not without substance, for the policies concerning academic freedom are in place, as University President Salovey reminded everyone of “Yale’s unwavering commitment to academic freedom” in a public statement after Gage’s resignation that was reported by The New York Times. Salovey promises, “Yale is committed to free inquiry and academic freedom — these are the university’s foundational values and have been my own over the course of my 35 years on the faculty.”

“It’s one thing to speak glowingly about academic freedom and freedom of speech because it’s very easy to speak about those things in the abstract,” Steinbaugh said. “But the important thing is to watch what institutions do when it becomes an actual enforceable obligation.”

Adam Steinbaugh is an attorney and the director of the Individual Rights Defense Programs of The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which is composed of a group of attorneys who defend the constitutional rights and civil liberties of both students and faculty. 

As Steinbaugh explained, the ease of speaking on academic freedom in the abstract is part of what enables institutions to evade practicing the policy itself. A policy commitment to freedom of expression or academic freedom has not been entirely universalized. There’s the legal definition, at least as it relates to freedom of expression. But the differing understandings of academic freedom by entities at different levels of the institution is part of what cements this ambiguity.

Yet the question of academic freedom didn’t feel this confounding to Lee, at first. When she left Harvard in 2002, she sought a teaching position at Yale because “its scholarship felt very genuine and pure.” In her eyes, Yale was distinct “for its lack of compromise and corruption, the way that other institutions were heading.”

This represents a temptation by some, including Lee, to identify a cultural trend. “In general,” she said, “administration — and the preservation of institutions as an end in itself — has detracted from the goals of education, medicine or any other field that is used to lead directions in the past.” 

This is why Lee now believes that, when it comes to matters of academic freedom,  she doesn’t think “Yale [was] unique, nor [was] it at the forefront.”

There is something to be said for the persistence of this type of cases: this past November three professors filed a lawsuit against the University of Florida for suppressing their right to offer testimony in a voting rights case. In August, allegations were made against the University of North Carolina for a meeting between Israeli consular officials, the dean of college and a member from the U.S. House of Representatives to organize the termination of the graduate student who was teaching a course entitled, “The Conflict Over Israel/Palestine.”

Because of the succession of controversies in the news, there’s an aspect of these violations that feel inevitable: there’s no way to properly protect the ideal of academic freedom. 

But some people are more hopeful. “I don’t think [these violations are] inherently unavoidable,” said Steinbaugh. “And there’s certainly things that administrators can do to mitigate that risk or mitigate that possibility. One is to make sure that they have strong policies protecting freedom of expression and academic freedom. And it’s not enough just to have a policy: you actually have to respect it.”

Yet academic freedom is not only considered at the policy level; it’s considered at the legislative one as well. 

“One would hope that the legal definition is neutral,” Steinbaugh said. “It is supposed to protect people no matter what. That’s not that is not how it always works in practice.”

The legal definition of academic freedom, the one that occurs at an institutional level, isn’t always applied equally. Part of that has to do with the history: “so much of the jurisprudence and the policy commitments to academic freedom arise from the Red Scare era for having supposedly subversive views, because they were coming from the left,” Steinbaugh asserted. But the other part is simply the reality of politics on university campuses, in which partisanship has become even more relevant in questions of academic freedom and access to colleges in general.

However, beyond just the issue of polarization, if we consider both Lee’s and Gage’s situations, there’s a larger political implication involved, in which the sanctity of scholarship is threatened by a political agenda. Particularly in Gage’s case, we return to a question of power dynamics. With the control of the curriculum, donor influence and the liberties of  Gage all called into question, academic freedom has not only been considered at multiple levels, but also in the way in which it relates to authority.

In this way, the Grand Strategy program, and the controversy surrounding it, has asked what it’s intended to: who holds the power, both inside and outside the classroom.