So You Want to Promote Freedom of Expression…

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 8/14


If you’ve spent any time in higher education circles over the past decade, chances are you’ve heard of the Chicago Principles. First codified by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago in 2014, the Chicago Principles expressed the university’s commitment to “free and open inquiry in all matters” and guaranteed “all members of the University community the broadest latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.” The Chicago Principles quickly became the standard for protection of free expression in American higher education, and they have been adopted or endorsed by nearly one hundred other colleges and universities in the years since they were first published.

Great news, right? Surely that must mean that the adoptees are truly committed to protecting the academic freedom of their students and faculty and to promoting intellectual diversity both inside and outside of the classroom. Right??

Of course, those of you who are familiar with the state of American higher education know that such statements never end the story (as the University of Chicago itself can attest). A simple appeal to the “better angels of our nature” can’t reform a campus culture that stifles discussion before it begins, nor can it stop a power-hungry administrative bureaucracy set on imposing its ideological agenda from the top down. Many colleges are willing to take easy steps to signal their “support” for academic freedom, but far fewer are willing to act—or even to admit to themselves what it would actually take to promote freedom of expression on their campuses.

The University of North Carolina (UNC) offers a prime example. At the end of last month, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees unanimously adopted a resolution affirming both the Chicago Principles and the 1967 Kalven Report, which emphasizes “institutional neutrality on political and social issues” and explains that free expression depends on such neutrality. Board member Perrin W. Jones, who proposed the resolution, accompanied it with his own statement in favor of academic freedom, published just yesterday in the Charlotte Observer: “The purpose of higher education in a democracy is to promote the discovery, refinement and sharing of knowledge and wisdom through free and open inquiry and debate. Censorship, dogma and intolerance have no place in our universities.”

UNC-Chapel Hill’s renewed commitment to academic freedom is commendable. But the Board is fooling itself if it believes that the resolution alone is sufficient to protect free inquiry at North Carolina’s flagship university. If the Board truly wants to promote open dialogue on campus, it needs to acknowledge and take active steps to limit the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) bureaucracy on campus.

National Association of Scholars Research Fellow John Sailer has previously written about the alarming role that DEI evaluations play in the promotion and tenure processes at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine and School of Global Public Health. In this week’s featured article, he reveals that the DEI frenzy has overtaken the university’s hiring process as well. Nineteen of the university’s current faculty job postings require applicants to submit diversity statements as part of their application, “in disciplines ranging from politics, to art history, to medicine, to chemistry.” In other words, departments across the university have decided that new professors should only be brought into the fold if they can provide “examples of how [they] have incorporated equity into [their] research, teaching and/or service” or of “how [they] will contribute to an inclusive environment.” One can only imagine what sort of response an applicant who disagrees with the premise—that “equity” must be incorporated into all aspects of scholarly work—would receive (hint: it probably wouldn’t be a job offer, or even an interview).

These DEI requirements are not only concerning on their face—they are in direct conflict with UNC-Chapel Hill’s expressed commitment to freedom of expression. Sailer writes:

Mandatory DEI evaluations come in conflict with both sets of principles [the Chicago Principles and the Kalven Report]. A university that asks its faculty to state their commitment to politically-coded concepts is hardly neutral. Such statements make it likely for scholars to be penalized for expressing opinions held by many Americans. Moreover, they hinder academic freedom by requiring scholars to reorient their research to match a “social justice” agenda at the university.

As long as university departments continue to require DEI statements from faculty members, whether current or aspiring, the message to the UNC-Chapel Hill community will remain clear: “freedom of expression” means only the freedom to express your support for the reigning ideological orthodoxy. If the Board of Trustees truly wants to promote intellectual diversity on campus, dismantling the DEI bureaucracy is a good place to start.

Until next week.


CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Colin Rowley, Public Domain

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