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Statement on the Patriot Act and academic freedom

This statement is drawn from remarks made at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting on April 8.

I think we all, as members of this community, recognize that one of this community’s proudest moments was the way in which it stood up for the rights of its members in the time of the McCarthy period. More generally, we recognize that academic freedom is a central and absolute value of this community, and I want to speak from the perspective of academic freedom.

The first issue that has been raised by members of this faculty is the treatment by this community of individuals based on the views that they express. I want to make clear in the strongest possible terms that it is antithetical to everything this community stands for, for individuals to be penalized on the basis of the political beliefs that they express on any question of controversy. For anyone to engage in such treatment would be wrong.

The broader set of issues that have been raised goes to the set of measures taken by the United States government and the appropriate response of the University to those measures. And it seems to me that it is useful to address those issues at four levels.

First, with respect to policy, the University has been in the recent past, and will continue to be, engaged in the policy dialogue in Washington on matters that affect the University’s interests in academic freedom, whether with regard to its students, its teaching, or its research. We will use such influence as we have – in the future, as in the past – to work to create legislation that is protective of our interests.

Second, with respect to the implementation of legislation that has already been placed on the books, the University will – in the future, as in the past – seek to work with the government agencies charged with implementing legislation in order to assure that the regulations and procedures that they adopt are protective of our interest in academic freedom.

Third, with respect to any request that any member of the University receives that is potentially invasive of the privacy or the academic freedom of any other member of this academic community, I would request that the person consult immediately with the Office of the General Counsel before taking any action. I can assure you that the University’s general counsel will provide advice that is maximally supportive, within the University’s legal obligations, of the privacy of all the members of this community.

Fourth, with respect to any individuals within this community – students, staff, junior faculty, faculty – the University will uphold and defend their right of academic freedom and their right of free speech. We do these things because academic freedom is central to what the University is all about. It is central to our ability to disseminate knowledge, and to create knowledge.

Let me say, finally, that I would associate myself with the observations of Professor Sidney Verba on the spheres in which it is and is not appropriate for the University to take an institutional position, or for faculties within the University to take an institutional position. At times, where the direct interests of the University are involved, we have, as in the Michigan affirmative action case now before the Supreme Court, taken a public position on a political or a policy question. Yet generally, where those interests are not involved, the University would be poorly served, in my judgment, to take an institutional position.

This approach, which needs to be carefully considered and applied in light of circumstances, is important for at least two reasons.

First, any effort to take an institutional position, if an institutional position is arrived at, inevitably must have some impact on individuals within the community who wish to take a dissenting view, and must inevitably raise a caution in their minds about considering the expression of a dissenting view. And so the existence of an institutional view on political questions not directly related to the University’s interests can work against our objective of promoting academic freedom.

Second, the compact with which we operate vis-à-vis the larger society is a complex one. The compact that enables us to resist pressures of the kind Harvard President Pusey resisted in the 1950s is one that depends on our being an institution that is committed to the freedom of individuals within our community. Equally it depends upon our exercising great care as an institution not to become a political actor in the larger society, with the exception of those issues that pertain directly to our interests.

And so it would be my pledge that the University will, in the future as in the past, uphold the commitment to academic freedom with all the vigor that we can. The University will take care to avoid adopting institutional positions on political matters outside of its direct interests. And it is my belief, as a member of this faculty, that it would be ill-advised for the faculty, as a faculty, to take such positions – valuable as it is, and will continue to be, for us to discuss matters of concern vital to us all.