More than 100 Harvard professors and faculty members have banded together to form the new Council on Academic Freedom to protect free speech and prevent censorship on campus during a "crisis time."
Steven Pinker, the council's co-founder and Harvard psychology professor, published an op-ed in the Boston Globe earlier this month stating that the "confidence in American higher education is sinking" largely because of "the impression that universities are repressing differences of opinion."
"It has been stoked by viral videos of professors being mobbed, cursed, heckled into silence, and sometimes assaulted, and it is vindicated by some alarming numbers," Pinker wrote.
The Harvard professor noted that academic institutions that censor students and faculty will inevitably "provide erroneous guidance on vital issues like pandemics, violence, gender, and inequality."
Pinker announced in the April 12 op-ed that he and 50 colleagues had formed a new council at Harvard to protect academic freedom. Since the article was published, the council has nearly doubled in size, according to council co-president and medical school professor Jeffrey Flier.
Flier, who has been at the Ivy League school since 1978, told the New York Post, "During the great part of my career, I never really thought of there being a problem with free speech or academic freedom at Harvard."
He explained that he started to notice increased attacks on free speech while he was the dean of Harvard Medical School from 2007 to 2016.
Flier stated that the Ivy League professors formed the council to create a network of people that could stand up against censorship and protect academic freedoms.
"When the next instance occurs … this group will spring into action both behind the scenes and publicly. And I think it will be a different ball game when that happens," he stated.
Janet Halley, a law school professor and feminist legal theory scholar, told the Post that she joined the council after witnessing countless professors targeted for their speech nationwide.
"We are in a crisis time right now," Halley stated. "Many, many people are being threatened with — and actually put through — disciplinary processes for their exercise of free speech and academic freedom."
"Many people think that they're entitled not to be offended [on campus], and they are willing to complain," she added. "It's very difficult for institutions to stop the disciplinary wheels from churning."
Council co-president and philosophy professor Ned Hall stated that the council comprises "resolutely non-partisan" members.
"Some people will read the expression of academic freedom as code for 'right wing.' But it's simply not," he said.
Hall believes that most students on campus support free speech, and those advocating censorship are just a vocal minority.
"Most students come to Harvard actively interested in having robust conversations and in being guided by us professors," Hall told the Post. "Students have said to me before, 'I want to have conversations about hot button topics, but I'm not so comfortable doing it.'"
"You want to be able to train citizens who know how to function with each other in a society," Hall added.
A recent survey conducted by Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and College Pulse found that only 27% of Harvard students believe that shouting down a speaker on campus that they disagree with is never acceptable.
There have been more than 1,000 attempts nationwide to sanction academic professionals' speech from 2000 through 2022, according to the FIRE. Nearly two-thirds of those attempts have resulted in sanctions, including 225 terminations, FIRE reported.
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