Old vs. New: Kanazawa controversy spurs discussion on generational gap in defining academic freedom


Evan Robinson-Johnson/The Daily Northwestern

A student holds up a sign at a February march and teach-in event to protest scientific racism in academia. Activists pushed back against the idea that Satoshi Kanazawa is just “hurting feelings” with his research

Cameron Cook, Assistant Campus Editor

Northwestern administrators’ unwillingness to oust a controversial visiting scholar despite widespread student backlash has thrown into question the definition, limits and importance of academic freedom at the University.

Satoshi Kanazawa, whose work in the field of evolutionary psychology has been criticized as racist, misogynist and xenophobic, is at NU this year while on sabbatical from The London School of Economics and Political Science. Although he isn’t teaching or being paid, according to University leadership, his presence on campus has spurred outrage among students along with calls for his removal.

When student activists circulated a petition in December asking that administrators force Kanazawa off campus, Provost Jonathan Holloway sent an email defending Kanazawa’s right to remain at NU on the basis of academic freedom.

“Kanazawa has made clear that his opinions are his own,” Holloway wrote in the December email. “As a member of the Northwestern community, I believe that personally held views, no matter how odious, cannot be a reason to undermine the vital principle of intellectual freedom that all academic institutions serve to protect.”

That response caused frustration among students, who have organized and written demands of the University, making it clear that they think having Kanazawa at NU harms people of color, especially black women.

Academic freedom’s traditional limits are along the same lines as those that restrict freedom of speech, Holloway added, like hate speech and incitement to violence. Although he does not agree with the research, even Kanazawa’s freedom should be protected because his work doesn’t incite violence and isn’t hateful, Holloway said in an interview with The Daily late last month.

Although the University is a private institution and is not required to defend First Amendment rights, administrators remain adamant that NU gives both students and faculty academic freedom –– even freedom to express ideas widely considered offensive, like Kanazawa’s.

“I think he’s hurt feelings,” Holloway said. “I don’t think he’s actively preached hate.”

Because he maintains that the University’s commitment to academic freedom and his limited power as provost will not lead to Kanazawa’s dismissal, Holloway has described the situation as “impossible.”

“This has been ripping me apart,” he said.

Student activists feel differently. In a list of working demands for the University authored by the graduate student organization Critical Contexts, activists point to the administration’s move to keep Kanazawa as a violation of their own academic freedom.

“Intellectual freedom is a cornerstone of our university community,” Critical Contexts members wrote. “However, like any freedom, this entails both ‘freedoms to’ and ‘freedoms from.’”

By allowing Kanazawa to stay on campus, the University isn’t recognizing marginalized students’ “freedom from” ideas that dehumanize them, said Nikki McDaid-Morgan, a second-year learning sciences graduate student.

McDaid-Morgan, a member of Critical Contexts, said the group is working to “problematize” what it thinks is a system that allows researchers to publish whatever they want without facing repercussions from their institutions.

But one of the principles of academic freedom is that people can disagree with one another, both in person and through their own research, Holloway said.

Holloway acknowledged the generational gap that causes conflict around freedom of speech limitations. He said he thinks people who are part of younger generations seem to be “perfectly happy” to give up some freedoms because free speech has recently been used to protect people with racist, sexist and Islamophobic ideas.

Student activists, though, maintain that they support the idea of academic freedom — just not the way it’s being used to defend Kanazawa and other researchers whose findings are built on racism, misogyny and xenophobia.

“We support strongly academic freedom — to talk openly and disagree openly and have conversations through our research,” McDaid-Morgan said. “But we’re also saying ‘Where does the end of academic freedom begin?’ When do we say, ‘We also have the responsibility to think of the broader social impacts of our work?’”

In addition, McDaid-Morgan said, the push to remove Kanazawa has received support from people of all ages — undergraduate students, graduate students and some faculty and staff members have all expressed support for the activists.

Pro-academic freedom messages from the administration haven’t been received well by students, SESP lecturer Kalonji Nzinga told The Daily last month, because administrators are using a different definition of academic freedom — one that is not socially conscious –– and haven’t budged from that “narrow vision.”

“Academic freedom is something that students are in the processes of defining and redefining for the 21st century,” he said. “This is brand new.”

Weinberg sophomore Mary Okematti said she defines academic freedom as “the freedom to express and investigate a diverse array of ideas in order to learn and grow.” But, she added, there are times when academic freedom should be limited.

“This freedom is limited when it becomes damaging to others by perpetuating negative stereotypes and marginalizing a group of people,” Okematti said.

Researchers whose work is published, McDaid-Morgan said, have influence and should have to think of the social repercussions of their scholarship. Research findings that legitimize ideas like the achievement gap in education, for instance, have real detrimental effects on the way people of color are treated in schools.

Kanazawa’s effect on communities of color at Northwestern, McDaid-Morgan said, isn’t just hurtful — it “goes beyond an effect on a single person.”

“As researchers, we have power,” they added. “Our work carries weight.”

To stop scholarship that does perpetuate stereotypes, McDaid-Morgan said, universities, institutional review boards and other researchers should question work that has the potential to harm communities of marginalized people. Because of its potential to influence decision-making, student activists argue, research like Kanazawa’s does more than just hurt feelings — it does harm.

“We aren’t just offended,” McDaid-Morgan said. “We are speaking out against oppression that is part of an academic system that’s been problematic. We’re pushing back and we’re saying that this isn’t okay anymore.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @cam_e_cook

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