Letter to the Editor: To promote diversity and inclusion, NU needs robust free speech policies

Historian of science and intersex patient rights advocate Alice Dreger will speak on Jan. 24 in Lutkin Hall for her first public talk at Northwestern since resigning from our medical school’s faculty in 2015. As president of Northwestern’s Queer Pride Graduate Student Association, I invited her to discuss challenges in publishing controversial ideas about sexuality.

On modern college campuses, supporting free speech can often be viewed as a conservative position and contrary to diversity and inclusion goals. But Dreger’s experiences flip this narrative and illustrate how free speech policies are vital to advancing diversity and understanding marginalized sexualities. For instance, the scandal that led to Dreger’s resignation focused on the censorship of a 2014 essay that the author, anthropologist William Peace, had written to counter stereotypes of paralyzed people as asexual. Dreger had guest-edited his essay for Atrium, a bioethics journal edited by Feinberg faculty.

After being paralyzed at age 18, Peace feared he might never have sex, he wrote. His aching question — “Can I have sex?” — went unanswered by medical professionals until one night in 1978 when one of his nurses gave him consensual oral sex and he orgasmed. The essay recounted a forgotten medical history, but also clarified Peace was “not suggesting we return to our primitive past” of the 1970s when nurse-patient sexual relations were common in rehabilitation centers.

I am eager to support ways that our queer student organization can help foster understanding about such marginalized sexual experiences. Apparently, our medical school’s administration disagreed in this case. Feinberg administrators feared Peace’s essay might tarnish the Northwestern Medicine corporate “brand,” according to Peace’s accounts of emails from Feinberg Prof. Katie Watson, who was Atrium’s founding editor.

Administrators therefore ordered that the entire essay be removed from Northwestern’s website. Even worse, according to Watson, they demanded that the dean’s office and public relations staff could veto future editorial choices “perceived to conflict with other institutional interests.” I do not think administrators directly intended to suppress scholarship about the sexuality of disabled people, but their actions nevertheless had that effect by caring more about sanitizing a corporate brand image than defending academic freedom.

For more than a year, Dreger petitioned the university administration, including former Provost Daniel Linzer directly, to admit its mistake and develop more concrete policies protecting academic freedom. After little success, Dreger resigned in August 2015. “I no longer work at a university that fearlessly defends academic freedom in the face of criticism, controversy, and calls for censorship,” she wrote in her resignation letter.

This lack of robust academic freedom protections should concern members of the NU community of all political orientations.

Historically, many social justice causes, including gay rights, have relied on principles of free speech. For instance, in 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a court decision requiring public universities to recognize gay student organizations. The court decision ruled that Texas A&M University violated the First Amendment by refusing to recognize a gay student group that the university administration had called “morally repulsive.” In other words, the simple existence of some gay campus groups in the late 1980s and later rested on the basic principle of free speech.

The modern debate about free speech on American college campuses has shifted, often centering on liberals’ objections to controversial conservative speakers. But even now, attacks on campus free speech come from across the political spectrum, including from the right. For instance, within the past two years, Tennessee successfully passed a law prohibiting state funds from being used to “promote the use of gender neutral pronouns,” and Arizona and Wisconsin lawmakers attempted to prevent public universities from teaching courses on social justice and racism.

“Conservatives, liberals, and libertarians should all be able to agree that consistent, principled defenses of free speech norms are indispensable at institutions of higher education, and that their absence is most damaging to marginalized students,” The Atlantic columnist Conor Friedersdorf eloquently argued. “Uniting against illiberalism on the right and left is the best course.”

For these reasons, we should all be concerned why our school made the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s list of 10 worst colleges for free speech in 2016. Our new Provost, Jonathan Holloway, has a unique opportunity to help restore Northwestern’s reputation and affirm our commitment to academic freedom. As Holloway argued while at Yale, this commitment should be made “not as a special exception for unpopular or controversial ideas but for them especially.” But to realize this goal, concrete policies are needed.

First, Holloway should implement a university-wide policy barring administrators and public relations staff from controlling the content of faculty-run or student-run publications, as a February 2017 Faculty Senate committee report recommended. Second, institutional diversity statements should be amended to explicitly include viewpoint diversity, as Associated Student Government argued in a March 2017 senate resolution. And third, Northwestern should adopt the 2015 University of Chicago statement about guiding principles for academic freedom policies, which has been adopted by dozens of universities including Princeton University, Purdue University, and all 26 campuses of University of Wisconsin.

These protections are needed to both facilitate rigorous academic debate and advance our institutional goals of diversity and inclusion. Controversies about publishing scholarship on sexuality demonstrate this point well, as Dreger will further discuss at next week’s event.

David Miller
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Psychology
President of Northwestern’s Queer Pride Graduate Student Association