Northwestern U. Is Accused of Violating Academic Freedom

Northwestern University engaged in “serious violations of academic freedom” both in its dealings with a bioethics journal that published a controversial article and in its investigation of Laura Kipnis, a film professor whom students accused of wrongdoing over her essay criticizing its sexual-misconduct policies, a faculty panel has concluded.

In a report on its findings, the Northwestern Faculty Senate’s ad hoc committee on academic freedom urges the university to revise its sexual-harassment policy, in order to prevent investigations over protected academic speech, and take steps to insulate its journals from administrative interference.

Pat Vaughan Tremmel, a Northwestern spokeswoman, declined on Friday to comment on the report. In an email, Laurie Zoloth, the Faculty Senate’s president, described the report as “an internal document” based not on systemic reviews of the two controversies but on published reports that relied on “claims made by one side.” The Faculty Senate has not endorsed the report or forwarded it to the university’s administration, and plans to use it mainly to inform potential revisions in the faculty handbook, said Ms. Zoloth, a professor of religious studies and of bioethics and medical humanities.

The report was especially critical of the university’s response to the controversy surrounding the journal Atrium, which is published by the university’s program in medical humanities and bioethics. Alice Dreger, who had been a nontenured clinical professor in that program as well as the journal’s guest editor, resigned over what she described as an effort by the medical school’s administration to censure an article in which a man with paralysis described receiving consensual oral sex from a nurse. The report says the medical school backed off after faculty members involved in the journal threatened to go public with a complaint of censorship, but ended up placing editorial oversight of the journal under a review committee that included one representative of the medical-school dean’s office and another from the school’s public-relations staff.

The university had argued that academic journals customarily have such editorial boards, but the Faculty Senate committee’s report says: “The university’s claim that having public-relations staff veto scholarly editorial decisions is ‘customary for academic journals’ is preposterous and outrageous.” It recommends that the university adopt a policy saying that “neither administrators nor public-relations staff may participate in the editing of journals edited by faculty or students, nor have any control over the content of those journals.” Ms. Dreger on Friday said she would like to receive an apology from Northwestern, but her chief concern is that it adopt the policy that the panel recommends.

The panel took a more favorable view of the university’s response to the controversy over Ms. Kipnis, whom two students had accused of retaliation in response to her essay’s discussion of Northwestern’s handling of a sexual-misconduct complaint. In addition to eventually clearing Ms. Kipnis, the university revised its sexual-misconduct policy to give administrators more power to drop investigations if they view allegations as unsubstantiated. The panel said the university “has gone a long way” toward dealing with problems raised by that controversy.

The panel’s report recommends, however, that Northwestern adopt its own version of a University of Chicago policy that says behavior is not harassment unless it is “objectively unreasonable,” and that expression occurring in an academic, educational, or research context is protected by academic freedom unless it targets a specific person, is abusive, and serves no legitimate academic purpose.

Return to Top