Hobart and William Smith Colleges Fails Its Faculty and Its Students


Mark D. Gearan, president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, has removed political theorist Jodi Dean from her courses because she authored a pro-Palestinian blog post, published on April 9th.

In an April 13th statement posted on the college website, President Gearan wrote:

As a result of Professor Dean’s comments, there now may be students on our campus who feel threatened in or outside of the classroom.

It’s not unreasonable for a college administration to have as an aim that its students not feel threatened in or outside of the classroom. But there are restrictions on the means by which it is allowed to pursue this aim. Among those restrictions are the college’s policies, including those set forth in the faculty handbook.

Like many private institutions of higher education in the US, Hobart and William Smith Colleges includes a version of the AAUP Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure in its faculty handbook, part of which states:

College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

Note that while the statement affirms faculty freedom from institutional discipline and sets forth special faculty obligations, it does not make the institution’s respect for that freedom conditional upon faculty’s satisfaction of those obligations. So even if one thought, for example, that Professor Dean’s blog post failed to exhibit “appropriate restraint”, that doesn’t license the institution to take her courses away from her—a clear form of institutional discipline.

By violating Professor Dean’s academic freedom, President Gearan has sent a message to all of the faculty at Hobart & William Smith Colleges: watch what you say, for if the president is in “complete disagreement” with your views, or finds them “repugnant”, or wants to “condemn them unequivocally,” he will not merely express his opinions, but will use his power to take measures that violate your academic freedom, too.

A petition has been launched to urge President Gearan to reverse his decision and refrain from further violations of academic freedom. You can sign it here.

The petition notes that

the text of Professor Dean’s article does not contain incitement to violence, is not directed at specific individuals, nor does it create a clear and present danger—standard tests for acceptable limitations to free speech as per U.S. law and traditions, and according to the guidelines adopted by the American Association of University Professors, endorsed also by Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Bizarrely, President Gearan’s statement includes this: “we can discuss hard issues upon which we may disagree. But we can never and will never condone or praise violence.” One hopes this is mere thoughtlessness, or a lie. Just imagine the variety of obviously justifiable activities the defense of which this prohibits. (And imagine what could be learned by hearing and grappling with defenses of what one takes to be unjustifiable violence.)

I don’t know if any students actually do feel threatened by Professor Dean’s blog post. Anything’s possible, and apparently, mere possibility of someone feeling threatened is sufficient, in President Gearan’s view, to justify a violation of academic freedom. Suppose some students do feel so threatened. There are many alternative, academic-freedom-respecting means the college could have taken to address those feelings: public events designed to convey support, provision of psychological assistance, extra campus security, for example. Perhaps the best bet would have have been a program for students about the value of academic freedom, and how an institution’s respect for it is not tantamount to the institution’s endorsement of what its faculty say when exercising that freedom.

(Relatedly, because the internet is full of stupid, let me note that my criticism of Mark Gearan’s violation of Jodi Dean’s academic freedom is not thereby an expression of agreement with what Jodi Dean said in her blog post. I don’t agree with her.)

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Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
1 month ago

Can someone link to the content she was disciplined for? I’m not readily finding it, and feel like I’d need to see it to have a view on this. Thanks!

Fritz Allhoff
Fritz Allhoff
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
1 month ago

Thanks!

Serial Offender
Serial Offender
1 month ago

It’s not unreasonable for a college administration to have as an aim that its students not feel threatened in or outside of the classroom. But there are restrictions on the means by which it is allowed to pursue this aim.

Or maybe we push back against this aim. Perhaps we should acknowledge that students, and people in general, will feel all kinds of ways in response to all sorts of speech. Encouraging or discouraging people to feel one way or another should not be the aim of a college administration. The idea that we can separate all the discourse surrounding protecting students feelings from punitive, speech-limiting, measures like this strikes me as deeply misguided.

David Wallace
1 month ago

This is about as clear a violation of academic freedom as you can imagine. Shame on Mark Gearan.

(And I speak as someone who could not disagree more strongly with Jodi Dean’s comments.)

Dale Miller
1 month ago

On balance, I think that the school made the wrong call. However, the post was so egregiously bad as to raise questions of professional competence, coming as it does from a political theorist. And the line between glorifying the perpetrators of recent past violence and inciting further violence is not a very thick one.

T.J.
T.J.
Reply to  Dale Miller
1 month ago

Questions of professional competence aren’t adjudicated by administrators, they’re adjudicated by academic departments, tenure committees, journal editors, etc. So, any implication about professional competence is irrelevant to the administration’s decision to punish a faculty member for their extra-curricular speech.

It’s not clear what you mean by “inciting further violence.” If you mean the legal standard for incitement, the blog post couldn’t be further from meeting it. If you just mean something like ‘the blog post makes future violence more likely’, then I don’t see any reason to suspect this would be the case.

If these are the considerations weighing in the school’s favor, then it seems like we don’t need much balancing to figure out what, on balance, the school should have done.

Chris Surprenant
1 month ago

This sort of action is obviously outrageous and an embarrassment for this college.

With that said, the “words are violence” chickens are starting to come home to roost. “Progressive” faculty members have been pushing this nonsense for a while in order to suppress views they disagree with. It’s not surprising to now see right-leaning administrators use this same language to try to suppress speech on the political left, likely due to pressure from trustees or donors.

On the Market Too
On the Market Too
1 month ago

Next Up: Emmanuel College & Nathan Cofnas

Serial Offender
Serial Offender
Reply to  On the Market Too
1 month ago

And clearly the same principles apply in this case. We are doomed, as citizens and especially as philosophy professors, if we cannot openly and without embarrassment acknowledge this. Standing up for academic freedom means standing up for academic freedom, no matter how distasteful the content.