Academic Freedom and the Meaning of Courage

Sometimes, it takes courage to stand up for academic freedom.

Three months ago I posted an article addressing academic freedom issues that had arisen at Northwestern University. In that piece, I related an incident involving Alice Dreger, William Peace, and an issue of the journal Atrium.

As I then reported, Atrium is a journal published by Northwestern University's Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program. Each issue focuses on a different theme, and each contributor is expected to explore the theme "in different, thought-provoking ways." The Winter 2014 issue of Atrium, which was edited by Professor Alice Dreger, included a series of lively articles on the theme of "Bad Girls."

One of the articles, written by William Peace, then the 2014 Jeannette K. Watson Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at Syracuse University, was titled "Head Nurses." In this essay, Peace, who is disabled, told the story of how 36 years earlier a young woman nurse, with whom he had grown close, provided oral sex to him during rehabilitation in order to address his deep concerns that, after a severe health problem left him paralyzed, he could no longer be sexually active.

Peace's essay, which was written and edited in a responsible, mature, and thoughtful manner, so upset the authorities at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine that they ordered the story removed from the online version of Atrium. This act of blatant censorship, in direct contravention of any plausible understanding of academic freedom, remained in place for fourteen months, over the continued objections of Peace and Dreger.

Northwestern finally reversed course only after Peace and Dreger made clear that they would take the matter public if the university did not relent. Presumably, the university's concern was that the inclusion of such an "offensive" article in Atrium might put off some of the university's donors and the hospital's patrons, either because of its acknowledgement of oral sex or because it might be construed as demeaning to women. Neither concern is a justification for censorship. The journal, the issue, and the essay were all squarely within the bounds of academic freedom, and Northwestern University should have stood proudly in support of that principle.

For the last three months, Dreger has been trying to get Northwestern to state unequivocally that its action was inappropriate. She wanted an assurance that no similar action would occur in the future. Although officials at Northwestern have affirmed the institution's commitment to the general principle of academic freedom, they have not been willing to admit that the act of taking down the article was incompatible with academic freedom. In such circumstances, Dreger came to question whether she could continue her relationship with Northwestern.

Most professors in this situation would have patted themselves on the back for having managed to get the article back online and then turned their attention back to their usual work of teaching and scholarship. But Dreger has made a career out of defending academic freedom. Her most recent book, Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science, is a brilliant account of the importance of academic freedom in situations in which researchers got in trouble for putting forth challenging ideas about sex. She believes deeply in academic freedom. She refused to go back to business as usual.

Although grateful to those "university leaders" at Northwestern University who had defended her academic freedom in the past "when they received often sharp criticisms of my work," on Monday she wrote to Northwestern's Provost that "I no longer work at that institution. I no longer work at a university that fearlessly defends academic freedom in the face of criticism, controversy, and calls for censorship. Now I work at a university at which my own dean thinks he has the authority to censor my work. An institution in which the faculty are afraid to offend the dean is not an institution where I can in good conscience do my work. Such an institution is not a 'university,' in the truest sense of that word."

And, with that, Dreger resigned her position at Northwestern.

Few individuals would have the courage to take that step. Few individuals would sacrifice themselves in this way in the name of integrity, honesty, and academic freedom. It was not easy for Dreger to take this step. But with stunning clarity, Northwestern University has now been given Alice Dreger's Middle Finger.