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Harvard Professors Help Found Nonprofit Committed to Academic Freedom

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UPDATED: March 11, 2021 at 2:15 p.m.

Eighteen Harvard affiliates — including Cornel R. West ’74, Steven A. Pinker, and Ronald S. Sullivan Jr. — signed on as founding members of a new nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to defending academics’ freedom of expression.

The Academic Freedom Alliance, which officially launched Monday, arose out of conversations among professors at Princeton University about free speech on college campuses. By invitation, 17 current Harvard faculty and one incoming Harvard Law School professor joined the initiative.

Keith E. Whittington — a professor of politics at Princeton who formerly taught at HLS and serves as the chair of Alliance’s Academic Committee — said the association’s founding was motivated by a “steady drumbeat of faculty who found themselves under threat because of something they had said or done or taught.”

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The organization’s primary goal is to defend the academic freedom of its members, who espouse diverse political and ideological positions. Its leadership consists of two main bodies: the Academic Committee and the Legal Advisory Council.

According to Whittington, the Academic Committee will make final decisions regarding whether the organization will assist a member and what kinds of actions the group will take, such as issuing statements, offering legal assistance, or providing financial support.

The Legal Advisory Council seeks to provide legal services to scholars whose academic freedom is challenged by institutions or other officials, according to Jeannie Suk Gersen, a professor at HLS who serves on the Council. The Council includes law professors and professional lawyers, including a former United States Solicitor General and partners at several major firms.

Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard and founding member of AFA, said he joined the nonprofit because he saw a need to protect freedom of opinion at universities, which he said is “indisputably under threat.”

“Much of the intellectual repression comes when there is a noisy group of activists who pressure university officials who just don’t want trouble,” Pinker said.

Penalizing someone for holding a minority viewpoint “corrodes the credibility of the university,” he added.

Pinker said he hopes AFA will push in the other direction and back up administrators who stand up for intellectual diversity.

Randall L. Kennedy — another founding member and professor at HLS — gave an example of an academic freedom case in which a professor was penalized for “enunciating” a slur as a part of their “perfectly sound” pedagogy.

“They had a pedagogical reason for enunciating the slur but nonetheless they have been subject to discipline,” Kennedy said. “These episodes, if they’re not challenged, they grow roots.”

Whittington noted the purpose of AFA is not to support “people on one side of the aisle.”

“Our goal is not to evaluate the merits of whether or not people are committed to things we agree with,” he said. “Our concern is to protect people’s rights to be able to explore those topics and speak out on the truth as they understand it.”

Gersen described the organization’s membership as a “politically diverse” group of scholars.

“There may be people on the list that may seriously disapprove of me. And there may be other people on the list that I know that I wouldn’t agree with,” Gersen said. “But that’s part of the point.”

The association began reviewing potential cases earlier this week, Gersen added.

AFA will hold its launch event — a virtual panel discussion featuring Gersen, Whittington, and several other founding members — on Thursday.

CORRECTION: March 11, 2021

A previous version of this article misspelled Steven A. Pinker's name.

—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at ariel.kim@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at simon.levien@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.

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