The battle over academic freedom

In the wake of George Floyd’s death, almost all of institutional America put out official statements decrying racism and some universities initiated policies governing allowable speech and research. This was followed by the expected dissent from those who worry that academic freedom is being suppressed (see here, here, and here for some examples). Then there is the (in)famousĀ Harper’s Magazine open letter decrying Cancel Culture, which triggered a flurry of counter responses (e.g. see here and here).

While some faculty members in the humanities and (non-life) sciences are up in arms over the thought of a committee of their peers judging what should be allowable research, I do wish to point out that their colleagues over on the Medical campus have had to get approval for human and animal research for decades. Research on human subjects must first pass through an Institutional Review Board (IRB) while animal experiments must clear the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). These panels ensure that the proposed work is ethical, sound, and justified. Even research that is completely noninvasive, such as analysis of genetic data, must pass scrutiny to ensure the data is not misused and subject identies are strongly protected. Almost all faculty members would agree that this step is important and necessary. History is rife of questionable research that range from careless to criminal. Is it so unreasonable to extend such a concept to the rest of campus?

3 thoughts on “The battle over academic freedom

  1. Even supposing that IRB and IACUC operate at the correct margins of the freedom / efficiency / safety tradeoff, which is doubtful, this is still a terrible analogy.

    First, the Harper’s letter and basically this entire debate is not about “What kind of research should faculty be allowed to do?”, it is about the public discourse around that research. If I publicly questioned IACUC and IRB policies (that I nonetheless follow) there would be (nor should there be) any repercussions to my career. Same if I publicly question the wisdom of an FDA or other regulatory decision. But if I publicly question the accuracy of particular cultural narratives around race or gender, there is a non-trivial chance that I will get cancelled: non-trivial enough to result in one side of the debate (even at the margin that even most liberal people privately think would represent a reasonable crux for argument) about the narrative.

    Second, IACUC and IRB are institutional, accountable organizations with scope and behavior constrained by federal laws and university by-laws. Comparing the force that motivated the Harper’s letter, which is an amorphous social media mob with ever-changing norms, inconsistent, non-linear punishment schedules, performative escalation, and which is accountable to no one, to IACUC/IRB is like comparing right-wing peddlers of conspiracies about COVID and the forthcoming vaccines to the FDA.


  2. It is unclear to me what people who rail against “cancel culture” want. Calling out bad behavior and bad ideas is free speech. The internet “mobs” usually have some specific grievances that they point to – it is up to the institutions to address those grievances and figure out whether the target of those grievances is acting in ways that are consistent with institutional goals and the institutional mission. If the “free speech” crusaders want to make an impact, perhaps they should champion better worker protections.

    Additionally, I followed the case of that blogspot author at MSU above. It looked to me like people (rightfully) took offense to his citation of Cesario’s (retracted) study in his proclamation that there is no racial bias in policing – a stance that is not supported in any way by the manuscript, even taking the results at face value. I see no acknowledgement anywhere of methodological issues in model interpretation as documented here: by the author of that blog. Scrolling through more posts in that alt-right cesspool, all I see is evidence of confirmation bias on his part in taking outlandish interpretations of studies that he likes and dismissing anything that he dislikes. The author of that blog does not come across to me as a serious academic who I would want to place in charge of administering research grants anywhere.


  3. I agree with Josh above. Actually, its hardly a twitter mob when over 300 MSU faculty signed the letter.

    There is certainly a lot wrong with Cesario’s discussion on the Hsu blog. Firstly, it is deeply insensitive because it was made a few days after the country witnessed a graphic execution of a black man. However, he has a right to do that. What he does not have a right to do is to only present one side of that discussion. Actually, Cesario’s PNAS paper is followed by two comments which essentially say the results are invalid. Those were not discussed.

    In my reading of the paper it is hardly even relevant since it does not address the crux: which is the killing of an UNARMED black man, and the subsequent absence of any semblance of justice. A topic, by the way, which hardly requires any statistical analysis.

    So Hsu wades into the most deeply sensitive topic, in a country with 200 years of brutal slavery, and does not present a balanced perspective.

    The second accusation of the so called “twitter mob” is the interview with Ron Unz. This is deeply disturbing because Unz is the purveyor of a deeply offensive website. They even discuss the blog in the podcast as if it a place for open discourse. It is not. Lots of white supremacy and anti-Semitic material. Actually, deeply disturbing that such material can in anyway be associated with a faculty member at any University.

    Should he have been fired? I don’t think so. But dismissing the twitter mob is only one side of the issue.

    So I agree with the original post here stating that academic activity should be regulated. Especially with regards to deeply sensitive social issues, antisemitism, and white supremacy.


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