Johns Hopkins to formalize its stance on academic freedom

Controversies prompted a reevaluation of the school's policies

Following several recent controversies related to academic freedom, Johns Hopkins University has released a draft statement on the topic—the first in the school's history, Kaitlin Mulhere reports for Insider Higher Ed.

The draft statement on academic freedom was authored by a 14-person task force, which included both students and professors from several academic departments. The task force was formed last year by President Ronald Daniels.

Responding to controversy

Robert Lieberman, the school's provost and VP of academic affairs, says the lack of an official statement on academic freedom had "made us trip over ourselves a little bit." For instance, in 2013 a dean requested a professor remove a blog post critical of the National Security Administration. Ultimately, administrators withdrew the request and said they had made an error. Other controversies have involved topics such as abortion and the selection of graduation speakers.

Lieberman says the draft statement is meant to be flexible and approaches the issue of academic freedom at the community level—rather than being tailored specifically to the concerns of professors. However, the statement does acknowledge tenure as the "backbone of academic freedom."

According to the statement, professors are encouraged to communicate to students when speaking on controversial topics that they are free to disagree. Simply holding controversial or potentially offensive positions are not grounds for punishment either. "The more appropriate response to such statements in an academic setting is objection, persuasion, and debate," the statement reads.

Joel Grossman, a professor emeritus of political science, who led the task force, says the statement is meant to be a reminder of how to approach controversy. Determining when academic freedom has been violated will always require judgment, he says.

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A positive step

Henry Reichman, a history professor at California State University, East Bay and chairman of the Association of American University Professors' Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, says it is common for a school to have a formal statement on academic freedom. Overall, he says Johns Hopkins University's draft statement is strong and a positive step.

The school is soliciting feedback on the draft until May 8th, at which point it will then be presented to the Board of Trustees for review. The task force also has recommended the school create a formal process for dealing with potential violations of academic freedom in the future.

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"The university will help itself if it's prepared for the inevitable," says Grossman. "We haven't addressed that, but somebody needs to" (Mulhere, Inside Higher Ed, 4/8).

The takeaway: Johns Hopkins University has reversed its first official statement on academic freedom following a series of controversies on the topic.

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