JHU's conflicting approaches to academic freedom [Commentary]

"Freedom of expression is the heartbeat of our university," Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels and Provost Robert C. Lieberman declared in an email this month announcing a new Task Force on Academic Freedom that will formulate an "official set of principles that can give expression to our core values in this area."

The email makes the case for JHU's "special kinship with academic freedom" through one particular example: Philosophy professor Arthur Lovejoy's disagreement with a trustee while at Stanford had earned him a "troublemaker" reputation, but JHU hired him anyway.

The email leaves out that JHU hired Professor Lovejoy 104 years ago and nine years after the 1901 Stanford trouble. JHU took the brave and courageous step of ... hiring him away from the University of Missouri.

There's a more embarrassing omission, however. After his 1938 JHU retirement, Professor Emeritus Lovejoy embraced McCarthyism and called for the dismissal of professors found to be Communists. "Employment of Communist teachers is inimical to academic freedom," he argued, because loyalty to Communism prevents loyalty to the ideals of a university.

In its online description of Lovejoy's collected papers, JHU's Eisenhower Library spins this dirty little secret with Orwellian panache: "He was a member of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom with a view to countering the Communist threat."

In 1950, Lovejoy's anti-Communism hit home: Senator Joseph McCarthy attacked JHU's renowned China scholar, Professor Owen Lattimore, in a five-year smear campaign, branding Lattimore a top Soviet spy. The administration placed him on leave (half of the Board of Trustees wanted him fired), and disbanded the Lattimore-directed Walter Hines Page School of International Relations (subsequently replaced by the School for Advanced International Studies). Or, as Lattimore later explained: "Don't fire the professor, get rid of the department."

Yes, President Daniels and Provost Lieberman, to cite your email, "it is striking that despite all of this tradition, JHU does not have a formal university position … on academic freedom." Of course, this made it possible in September 2013 for the Dean of Engineering to censor Computer Science Assistant Research Professor Matthew Green's blog post regarding the National Security Administration, launching an international media debacle. ¿¿

It also enabled you both, in another university-wide email on Dec. 24 to condemn the American Studies Association's (ASA) support of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement, which expresses solidarity with Palestinian professors and students lacking basic freedoms of movement and expression. You acknowledged "many in our community hold passionate and competing views" on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while declaring that BDS "[strikes] at the very mission of our university."

So which is it? You can't support academic freedom while warning your faculty and students that support for BDS or the ASA stance constitutes "an affront to principles that this university cherishes." That sort of institutional hypocrisy echoes Lovejoy's justification of McCarthyism and was Lattimore's undoing.

Instead of the self-congratulatory announcement of the Task Force on Academic Freedom, the president and provost should have come clean regarding JHU's missteps in allowing administrative echo chambers to determine what faculty and students can say or do. Arthur Lovejoy, Owen Lattimore and Matthew Green are as much a part of JHU as the brilliant research, writing and innovation that have managed to flourish regardless of Hopkins' record. Honest conversations are prerequisite to any meaningful discussion about academic freedom.

Such honesty includes JHU's role in militarized drone technology. For over two years the JHU Human Rights Working Group, a consortium of students, faculty and staff, has called for a campus-wide conversation into the ethical, legal, and political ramifications of JHU's drone research, the backbone of militarized drones. The call for JHU administrators to join this discussion continues to grow louder. Their silence is deafening.

Instead, the administration is celebrating and expanding its engineering-military partnerships. Drone research at JHU's Applied Physics Laboratory (not even President Daniels has full security clearance) and Malone Hall in Baltimore is literally a matter of life and death.

Is there an inherent contradiction between secrecy-shrouded research at JHU and a commitment to academic freedom? Post-Edward Snowden, regimes of surveillance, secrecy and censorship make the freedom to think and write dangerous thoughts from within a university in urgent need of protection. How is this imperative reconciled with the hundreds of millions of dollars JHU receives annually from the Department of Defense? Is JHU's "heartbeat" strong enough to tolerate these questions?

Bridget Kustin is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University and the founder of the JHU Human Rights Working Group. Her email is bkustin2@jhu.edu.

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