But what happened next is also “unpromising.” Northwestern University’s English department’s website published a poorly composed denunciation, obviously intended to retaliate for Epstein’s loutish opinion. A spokesman for the university saw fit to announce that “
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But what happened next is also “unpromising.” Northwestern University’s English department’s website published a poorly composed denunciation, obviously intended to retaliate for Epstein’s loutish opinion. A spokesman for the university saw fit to announce that “while we firmly support academic freedom and freedom of expression, we do not agree with Mr. Epstein’s opinion.” Most alarmingly, Epstein’s name abruptly disappeared from the department’s website. Epstein was a visiting lecturer at Northwestern from 1974 to 2002, and as late as last week he was listed on the department website as an “emeritus lecturer.”
As current law-school faculty members at Northwestern, specializing in constitutional law (Koppelman) and professional responsibility (Lubet), we believe that it is a serious violation of academic freedom to penalize a faculty member, including an emeritus one, for expressing unpopular views.
Professors and other university instructors have a responsibility to say what they believe to be true. Academic freedom exists to prevent punishment, or even the fear of punishment, for advocating disfavored beliefs. Intimidation is sand in the gears of the academic enterprise. If an emeritus lecturer can be disappeared today for writing something objectionable, who is to say what consequences may follow, and to whom, from the next distasteful op-ed?
The practice of disappearing people has a nasty history.
We have no interest in defending Epstein’s piece, which is boorish, disrespectful, borderline racist, elitist, dumb, and misogynist. It begins by weirdly decreeing that “no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child” and goes on to grouchily declare that Ph.D.s were harder to get in the old days (Epstein tends to think that everything was better when he was young) before drifting off into the barely related topic of honorary degrees (too many of which, Epstein implies, have lately been conferred on African American women).
But Epstein wrote what he thought, and the principles of academic freedom are not suspended in the case of dumb op-eds. The English department dismisses Epstein, who is 83 years old, as “a former adjunct lecturer who has not taught here in nearly 20 years.” That description is accurate but irrelevant (and, in context, its professional condescension is particularly ironic). It is in the nature of emeritus faculty members that they are retired and often no longer teaching. The “emeritus” title is not meaningless, nor does it follow automatically upon retirement. According to Northwestern’s official university handbook, emeritus status must be approved by a vote of the Board of Trustees. Epstein remains one of 578 emeritus faculty members, according to the university website, including an unspecified number of retired lecturers.
Epstein never held a professorial rank at Northwestern, but academic freedom equally protects lecturers, adjuncts, and other faculty members. A sad fact about modern higher education is the very large population of professional scholars without tenure, many of whom, like Epstein, teach for decades with lower pay and less job security. In a different economic environment, many of them would be tenure-track professors. Their precarious status is a reason for insisting even more strongly on that protection.
The practice of disappearing people, of course, has a nasty history, in literature and in life. In George Orwell’s 1984, disgraced figures were consigned to the “memory hole.” In Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, photographs were cropped to eliminate the appearance of former comrades who had been banished to Siberia (or worse). Scrubbing the English department’s website obviously does not carry the same threat of violence, but it is still a shabby practice more typical of a totalitarian regime than an academic department.
Almost every American university has distressing incidents in its history, such as the exploitation of enslaved labor and construction on stolen land. An honest accounting requires reckoning with history, not erasing it, and that includes even the trivial recognition of those who have held teaching positions. Northwestern’s own motto begins “Quaecumque sunt vera,” meaning “Whatsoever things are true.” It may be uncomfortable, but it is nonetheless true that Joseph Epstein is an emeritus lecturer in English at Northwestern University.