An Open Letter to David R. Anderson, President of St. Olaf College

Peter Wood

Editor's Note: This letter is made public to further pressure St. Olaf College to ensure fair and equal treatment of its faculty, staff, and students. It is part of a broader NAS effort to counter cancel culture in higher education.

We do not urge readers who are unacquainted with the cases to rush forward with emails, letters, or posts. Rather, we ask readers to weigh the facts and check our accounts against other sources. If you then agree that a college or university has acted in bad faith or counter to the core principles of liberal inquiry, then we do indeed urge you to speak up.

For those interested, we are also tracking attempted professor cancellations here.


David R. Anderson
President
St. Olaf College
Tomson Hall 260
1520 St. Olaf Avenue
Northfield, Minnesota 55057

Dear President Anderson,

I write to express my concern about St. Olaf College’s treatment of Edmund Santurri, Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community (IFC). While the College has not condemned Professor Santurri publicly, its decision to terminate his directorship a year early seems to have been motivated by his invitation of controversial speakers to campus, most notably Peter Singer.1 If this is true, it will chill academic freedom at St. Olaf College, both in the IFC and beyond. If it is not, I urge you to issue a public statement clarifying why Professor Santurri’s original term was shortened.

I write as President of the National Association of Scholars (NAS). NAS is a network of mostly U.S. scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in higher education. As part of our mission, we support intellectual freedom throughout North America. We have more than thirty years of experience in advocating for the principles of intellectual freedom. (For further information, please see www.nas.org.)

The IFC’s stated goals include supporting “free inquiry and free and spirited expression where students with diverse points of view and values can study, discuss, and debate political and social issues in a respectful environment” and bringing “nationally recognized thinkers and practitioners to campus.”2 It therefore stands to reason that the IFC will, in the natural course of its operations, invite to campus speakers with a wide variety of viewpoints, including individuals deemed controversial within mainstream academic culture. Indeed, it ought to invite such speakers in order to cultivate properly the environment of intellectual diversity that the IFC champions.

Peter Singer, Princeton University’s Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values, is one such controversial academic. Professor Singer is primarily known for his work on animal rights, but he has garnered widespread negative attention due to his views on infanticide and disabilities. In particular, Singer argues in his 1979 book Practical Ethics that euthanasia of severely disabled infants is justified in order to prevent future suffering. This view and others have generated consistent controversy in the years and decades since the book’s publication.

Professor Singer’s invitation to St. Olaf College produced protest for these very reasons. Before the IFC’s February 16 event featuring Singer—which, it should be noted, was part of a series called “Contemporary Controversies”—students created a Change.org petition titled “Boycott Peter Singer's Speaking Event at St. Olaf,” which has since received over 1,000 signatures. Further, two days before the event, “several St. Olaf offices sent a joint email to students who utilize support or accommodations for disabilities. The email opened with the statement, ‘The Center for Advising and Academic Success (CAAS), Disability and Access (DAC) and TRIO-Student Support Services for Students with Disabilities (SSSD) unequivocally reject Peter Singer’s views on people with disabilities, which are harmful to our values, mission and ongoing efforts to provide an inclusive environment for our students, faculty and staff.’”3

St. Olaf has claimed that its decision to shorten Santurri’s directorship is “not the result of the current Institute director’s decision to host any single speaker.” This may be true, but it appears that Singer’s appearance was nonetheless the tipping point in a series of IFC controversies. If so, this response to these controversies runs afoul of the very mission of the IFC and will ensure that it has nothing more than a superficial commitment to intellectual diversity.

I pause here to note that the charge that Peter Singer possesses “problematic views towards disabilities” is peculiarly obtuse. Peter Singer argues for murderous policies that violate the sanctity of human life. The protesters against Singer apparently believe that Singer’s apologias for murder would be acceptable so long as they did not single out the disabled as victims. St. Olaf, by its actions, apparently endorses this argument. St. Olaf would be on far stronger moral grounds if it forthrightly condemned Singer and Santurri for advocacy for murder—and murder of innocents.

Yet even if it did base its argument on this stronger foundation, it would not be sufficient. St. Olaf has committed itself to academic freedom, and not the sanctity of life. It also specifically chartered the Institute for Freedom and Community to promote intellectual diversity. These commitments take priority over the hue and cry about any “offensive” speaker—for speech that does not offend cannot be free.

And so, I ask: Did St. Olaf terminate Santurri’s directorship early due to the aforementioned controversies? If so, I call upon the College to issue an immediate public apology and reinstate Santurri to his original term. If not, I urge you to explain publicly why Santurri’s term was shortened. At best, this decision has generated great confusion that deserves clarification; at worst, it signals St. Olaf’s turn away from intellectual freedom, the very bedrock of higher education, and toward intellectual conformity.

Yours sincerely,
Peter Wood
President
National Association of Scholars


1 Caroline Geer, “St. Olaf Responds to IFC Inviting Philosopher Peter Singer to Campus,” The Olaf Messenger, March 3, 2022, https://www.theolafmessenger.com/2022/st-olaf-responds-to-ifc-inviting-philosopher-peter-singer-to-campus/.

2 “Mission, Goals, and Principles,” Institute for Freedom and Community, https://institute.stolaf.edu/about/mission/.

3 Geer, “St. Olaf Responds to IFC Inviting Philosopher Peter Singer to Campus.”


Image: Jonathunder, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

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