Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Academic Freedom Letter

Some colleagues and I created an open letter on Academic Freedom. If you share our views, you are invited to sign. 

The bottom line: we call for universities and professional associations to adopt and implement the  Chicago Principles of free speech, the Kalven Report requirement for institutional neutrality on political and social matters, and the Shils report making academic contribution the sole basis for hiring and promotion.  

We include professional societies. That means you, American Economic Association and American Finance Association: With all your committees on improving the profession, you need one big one to defend the most important and imperiled part of the scholarly enterprise, academic freedom. 

The letter, below, is not as comprehensive and detailed as you might like, but we worked to keep it short. 

The official letter and list of signatories lives here. If you would like to sign, you can do so by filling out this form. It's moderated so may take a day or two for your signature to show. 

We are up to 626 signatures (11/3). When the number stabilizes we'll try to make a public fuss about the letter. 

Update: A special plea. I have several responses from left/liberal/democrat colleagues who say they would sign, but don't want to have their names on a letter that doesn't have enough other left/liberal/democrat names on it and does have well known deplorables. (How you know 626 people's politics is beyond me, but ok.) That reaction tells us a big part of the problem.  All along we have tried very hard to reach out to self-described left/liberal/democrat colleagues, who privately bemoan what's going on but are too afraid to be seen in public. But why not fix it: if some of you sign perhaps that will give courage for more of you to sign. Take it over, get together with your friends, add lots of signatures, make this your cause, prove that we can stand together for freedom! 

Restoring Academic Freedom

The mission of the university is the pursuit of truth and the advancement and dissemination of knowledge. A robust culture of free speech and academic freedom is essential to that mission: Intellectual progress often threatens the status quo and is resisted. Bad ideas are only weeded out by unfettered critical analysis. 

Unfortunately, academic freedom and freedom of speech are rapidly declining in academic institutions, including universities, professional societies, journals, and funding agencies. Researchers whose findings challenge dominant narratives find it increasingly hard to get published, funded, hired, or promoted. They, and teachers who question current orthodoxies, are harassed in person and online, ostracized, subjected to opaque university disciplinary procedures, fired, or canceled by other means. Employment, promotion, and funding are increasingly subject to implicit or explicit political litmus tests, including approval from bureaucrats seeking to impose a social agenda such as specific views of social justice or DEI principles. Activism is replacing inquiry and debate.  An increasing number of simple facts and ideas cannot even be mentioned without risk of retribution.

Public high-profile victims are the tip of the iceberg. An atmosphere of fear and self-censorship pervades academia. Many faculty and students believe they cannot voice their views, question dogmas, investigate certain topics, or question the loss of academic freedom without risking ostracization and damage to their careers. Knowledge is lost, and many talented scholars are leaving academia. 

Universities and professional societies are failing to resist such illiberal forces–which have arisen many times throughout history, from all sides of the political spectrum –and to defend academic freedom and freedom of speech. 

Many universities and professional organizations now qualify their support for freedom: free speech, they say, so long as the speech does not offend or exclude; free speech, so long as it does not challenge institutionally approved narratives and conceptions of social justice; free speech, but only within narrow credentialed boundaries. These restrictions are counterproductive, even to their goal of advancing a particular ideology. People infer from censorship a desire to protect lies from being exposed. Historically, censorship has supported monstrous regimes and their ideologies. Bad ideas are only defeated by argument and persuasion, not by suppression. True justice and freedom cannot exist without each other.  

The loss of academic freedom results in part from a leadership crisis. While many university leaders issue statements that support open debate, they nonetheless oversee and expand politicized bureaucracies that harass, intimidate, and punish those who express views deemed to be incorrect and enforce ideological conformity in hiring and promotions. A boilerplate generic defense of free speech does little good if at the same time university administrators conduct investigations in secret, without due process, and based on anonymous complaints; if administrators publicly ostracize the victim to all potential future employers. Boards of trustees, alumni organizations, donors, government granting agencies, and other institutional stakeholders likewise fail to uphold the principles of academic freedom. 

Universities and professional organizations are instead moving headlong into institutional political and ideological activism. Departments and other university units make public statements of political views, thus effectively branding as heretics -and even bigots- members who may question those causes. Increasingly, centers and “accelerators” are devoted to political and policy advocacy, advocacy of the supporting ideologies, and suppression of competing ideas. Professional organizations and journals announce, all too often,  that certain kinds of research, no matter how methodologically valid, may not be published, and have turned to advocacy. University bureaucracies demand that certain authors be included and others excluded from reading lists and classroom discussion.

What can be done? 

We call for all Universities, academic associations, journals, and national academies to adopt the “Chicago Trifecta,” consisting of the Chicago Principles of free speech, the Kalven Report requirement for institutional neutrality on political and social matters, and the Shils report making academic contribution the sole basis for hiring and promotion.  

The Kalven report emphasizes,  “To perform its mission in society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures.’’  The University and its administrative subunits must abstain from taking position on the political issues of the day:  “While the university is the home and sponsor of critics, it is not itself the critic and therefore cannot take collective action on the issues of the day without endangering the conditions for its existence and effectiveness.” 

“The neutrality of the university as an institution arises … not from lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity.  It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.”

We also call for faculty to create (or join existing) non-partisan associations, aimed at defending these values on campus, and at a national level such as FIRE, the Academic Freedom Alliance, Heterodox Academy, FAIR and ACTA. Professional organizations should prioritize the defense of academic freedom and free speech of their members. 

Many universities have officially adopted the Chicago Principles. Robust structures must be developed to uphold these principles. Faculty under fire from student groups, other faculty, deans and administrators, or university staff, must be able to effectively assert their freedom of speech and inquiry by appealing to those statements. 

Universities must deploy safeguards to ensure that administrators work to uphold these principles rather than to undermine them.  University disciplinary procedures must become transparent, following basic centuries-old protections of the accused such as the right to see and challenge evidence, confront witnesses against them, the right to representation, and innocence until proven guilty. 

University leaders must also promote and institutionalize free speech and academic freedom by concrete actions. Freedom is a culture, not merely a set of rules, and a culture must be nurtured. Free speech, free inquiry, tolerance for opposing views, meeting such views with argument, logic and fact, abstaining from ad-hominem attacks, character assassination, doxing and other unethical behavior must be highlighted in the orientation materials for all new students and employees. Freedom comes with a culture of responsibility, but responsibilities are better enforced by social norms than by extensive rules enforced by non-academic bureaucrats.  If community members or groups petition school leaders for the sanction or punishment of a faculty member or a student for expressing their point of view, university leaders should publicly and clearly respond with a statement affirming that the University is a place to discuss and debate all views, and that an attempt to punish others for having “incorrect” views is incompatible with the community standards of the school.  The University should also commit to all students, faculty, and employees, that it will not punish or sanction free expression.   


  1. I call for an end to Federal Aid and Loans for Colleges.
    I also call for all non-profits which give anyone $100k+ to pay taxes, including colleges, hospitals, and other non-profits!

    If College worth it, then people will find a way!
    It is clear that for too many, College is worthless and they can't pay back their loans!
    I support college education, just not for the VAST Majority!

    1. The aim of any educational institution ought to be to a student a student for life. The point of the letter, which is overdue, it remind educational institutions of their purpose.

    2. Yes. End all government aid to education and all government-run schools. It's unconstitutional because it's the establishment of religion. Religion does not require a deity, because religion is merely a worldview which answers the fundamental questions of life: (1) how did everything get here? (2) what is my purpose? (3) and what happens after I die? The government religion's answers are (1) I don't know how everything got here. Either nature is all there is, or the god-force is all there is, but I know that the Bible is wrong: God did not create everything from nothing, and I am not created in His image. I am just an animal. (2) The purpose of life is to be a good person. The Bible is wrong when it says that no one is good, only God is good, and if we ever are good it's the Holy Spirit, the third person of the trinity, living in us and through us, that does the good works (the just shall live by faith), (3) I don't know what happens when I die. Maybe that's the end, maybe I'm reincarnated, maybe I go to heaven because of my good works, but I know that the Bible is wrong: there is no Judgment Day when Jesus Christ will either say "Depart from me, you evildoer - I never knew you", or "Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master."

  2. The University of Chicago has an admirable tradition of applying the Golden Rule to intellectual freedom. Your effort has nudged me, an alumnus, to make a meaningful contribution. Chicago will thank you!

  3. As Epictetus said, if you wish for figs in winter, you are a fool. You can't trust professors and administrators to do the right thing of their own accord seeing as we wouldn't be signing this document if they did. The solution is to make those principles legally binding: failing to observe them should make the institution and the decisions makers within it liable to a lawsuit. That way, I don't have to trust that they are good people -- just that they care about themselves.

    That being said, having universities and professional associations adopt those principles is a proper first step. The status quo has various political extremists use public and private institutions as bludgeons in the culture war and this has to stop. It's not resulting in the woke nirvana extremists on one side deluded themselves into expecting: it's just slowly creating parallel universes where each side is increasingly free to become literally insane.

  4. An excellent initiative. I have forwarded your post to Australia's Institute of Public Affairs, one of the few organisations in Australia championing freedom of speech.

  5. Notice how few assistant professors have signed the list. It is evidence of a fear of punishment for speaking freely.

    1. Or assistant profs are younger and feel less strongly (i.e., hard to pin it down to fear)

  6. No federal funding for universities which violate the principles of the 1st amendment.

  7. I support this initiative and wish it every success.

    On the term *freedom*. In parts of the world, that term goes over like a lead balloon. That would apply to some of Latin America, for example.

    In those areas, one can simply talk about secure and well-defined economic property rights without evoking the sometimes controversial term *freedom*. Not sexy but safer than inadvertently evoking northern hemisphere *freedom*.

    In some circles *freedom* might be confused with tenure. Otherwise, I cannot for the life of me find a better term to substitute for *Academic Freedom*.

  8. Re: "A special plea. I have several responses from left/liberal/democrat colleagues who say they would sign, but don't want to have their names on a letter that doesn't have enough other left/liberal/democrat names on it and does have well known deplorables. (How you know 626 people's politics is beyond me, but ok.) That reaction tells us a big part of the problem. All along we have tried very hard to reach out to self-described left/liberal/democrat colleagues, who privately bemoan what's going on but are too afraid to be seen in public. But why not fix it: if some of you sign perhaps that will give courage for more of you to sign. Take it over, get together with your friends, add lots of signatures, make this your cause, prove that we can stand together for freedom!"

    I fall squarely into this group. I just signed it. Appreciate you organizing this.

  9. The well of good ideas, and bad ones, has been the intellectuals of universities. The well is dry. Prime the pump with academic freedom, enforced and protected free speech, encouragement. C'mon professors. Stop obeying, start thinking and speaking and demand your students learn to learn.

  10. As a non academic I find this article and comments interesting but had to laugh at the comments are welcome… at the bottom which endorses a form of censorship. You really can’t have it both ways

  11. The letter is fine, but only an academic would say you kept it short. It's over 1,000 words long.

  12. In September of last year, one of my academic departments forbade use of the term ‘brown-bag seminar’ because it was racist.


    Our Chancellor is African American and he has them regularly.

    It is lunacy.

  13. For the person who commented that young people don't care as much - as much as I'd love to sign, I don't have any employment protections in my current role. Hushed conversations behind closed doors and carefully worded intimations to feel out who is "safe" to talk to is all many of us can afford.

  14. To solve the collective action problem involving "left/liberal/democrat colleagues": set up a separate list for their signatures, with the commitment that the signatures won't be published until the total number reaches some threshold, which could be an absolute number or a percentage of the number of all signatures received from anybody.


Comments are welcome. Keep it short, polite, and on topic.

Thanks to a few abusers I am now moderating comments. I welcome thoughtful disagreement. I will block comments with insulting or abusive language. I'm also blocking totally inane comments. Try to make some sense. I am much more likely to allow critical comments if you have the honesty and courage to use your real name.