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Money, freedom and Hopkins [Letter]

My congratulations to Bridget Kustin, founder of the Johns Hopkins University Human Rights Working Group, on her commentary ("JHU's academic 'freedom,' Feb. 25). It took courage to write that op-ed while still a student at Hopkins. While sincerely hoping she does not suffer repercussions, I want to note that academic institutions are either hurting for money or are greedy for it. Universities, even the ones with big endowments, act as though they cannot afford to host intellectual ferment, bold dissent and revolutionary ideas.

The business school has taken over the humanities. As Ms. Kustin points out, the folks who run the show pay lip service to academic freedom while simultaneously suppressing it with implied and overt threats to professors and students who would defy them.

According to Ms. Kustin, support for Palestinian professors and students is not welcome the school; the same is true for blog posts about the National Security Agency's shenanigans as well as calls to end Hopkins' involvement in the development of militarized drone technology.

Ms. Kustin talks as though saying one thing and doing another is surprising when it occurs in academia. She never touches on the business aspects that drive the whole university engine. Universities are competing for dollars from government, rich donors and alumni.

In a changing and highly competitive research milieu where grants can make or break scientific studies, publications and patents, universities feel compelled to ingratiate themselves to the givers. Displeasing government is a jeopardy too, because the research spigot could dry if government retaliates for perceived insults and criticism.

To play bland and neutral is far safer than to take sides on incendiary issues, political or religious. Hence controversial topics are put down on campus and quickly eliminated from view. The tenet is not to offend anyone's sensibility or provoke anyone's wrath resulting in withdrawal or reversal of favors.

I am sure the drone studies bring the university pots of money. The school's administrators will salve their conscience by telling themselves that drones have peace time uses too even if at the current time they are mostly used to kill or spy on ordinary citizens

The salaries of the bloated administration in any of these institutions are entirely dependent on raking in the dollars. I expect academic freedom to slide down a rabbit hole into the land of "off with the heads of anyone defiant" at Hopkins despite Ms. Kustin's valiant stand, unless, of course, she's cut from the same cloth as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and can give millions to her university with one sweep of her pen.

Usha Nellore, Bel Air

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