Leadership’s attempts to distinguish faculty views from the University’s.
When NU-Q professor Justin Martin hit “Tweet” on September 11, he didn’t anticipate the reaction that would follow from Northwestern leadership.
The tweet read: “Happy 9/11 more than 8,441 civilians died in Yemen this year helped by US arms dealt to Saudi Arabia & UAE. The US is complicit in far more terror than it has ever suffered.”
Shortly after, Provost Jonathan Holloway and President Morton Schapiro issued a statement calling the post “insensitive and deeply disappointing.” Holloway says he and Schapiro took issue with the tone and nature of Martin’s initial “snide comment.”
“[Administration] can say we disagree. We can say, ‘Shame on you,’ even,” Holloway says. “It’s his private account. He can do what he wants to. But the fact is, we didn’t violate his academic freedom because there were no consequences for his actions in a material sense.”
When NBN first contacted Justin Martin for this story, he declined to comment. After the University’s statement, he feared further jeopardizing his job security.
Martin changed his mind after he publicly criticized NU-Q Dean Everette Dennis in November. In a series of tweets, he recounted a faculty meeting where Dennis referred to students who asked that graduation be moved so it didn’t conflict with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, saying, “To hell with them.”
At that point, Martin felt he had nothing else to lose by speaking out.
In Evanston, academic freedom protects faculty members from censorship or discipline for their expressions. This idea seems simple enough, but the line between protecting academic freedom and addressing offensive comments is blurry. For Holloway, academic freedom becomes complicated “when someone’s safety is at risk or when the institution’s integrity is at risk.”
Bob Rowley, assistant vice president of media relations, says administration evaluates faculty expression on an individual basis rather than by a set protocol. In general, Holloway says he and Schapiro try to respond with restraint.
“It is much healthier for the spirit of the University that the faculty know they are allowed to range very broadly,” Holloway says. “That’s pretty critical to the academic enterprise.”
But recent instances of University intervention have brought up questions about when and why this restraint is abandoned.
In May, Steven Thrasher, then an incoming Medill professor, delivered a commencement speech at New York University in which he praised the student government for supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a Palestinian-led initiative to economically pressure the Israeli government.
Schapiro and Holloway quickly responded in an official statement: “We do not share all of his views, nor do we feel commencement was the appropriate venue to express them. However, academic freedom assures his right to hold them.”
At that time, Holloway says he and Schapiro felt obligated to restate that the University doesn’t support the BDS movement and values its relationships with Israeli academic institutions and research centers.
Last year, visiting psychology professor Satoshi Kanazawa quickly gained disapproval from students for his controversial research, including articles like “What’s Wrong With Muslims?” and “Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?” More than 5,000 people signed a petition to have him kicked off campus.
That December, however, Provost Holloway wrote in a statement saying despite how “odious” some views are, academic institutions must protect the “vital principle of intellectual freedom,” so the University would not intervene.
Holloway says if he’d disinvited Kanazawa, the visiting professor could have been hailed as a “martyr,” setting off conservatives who believe universities often disinvite guests for their political beliefs.
“I had to say, ‘Look, his ideas may be terrible, but the best thing we can do ... is to talk about them, to shine a bright light on the fact that those ideas simply don’t stand under the test of research or reasoning, and move on,’” Holloway says.
Martin says he wished the University affirmed his freedom of expression, just as they had with Kanazawa’s.
“I was surprised that they condemned a professor’s remarks without saying anything about freedom of expression,” Martin says.