Message on Academic Freedom and Faculty Speech

November 2, 2023

Dear Colleagues, 

To follow up on President Rougeau's recent message, I write to share my perspective on academic freedom and faculty speech. I hope these additional thoughts will contribute to our ongoing campus conversation about the kind of scholarly and academic community we seek to cultivate together. I also write to affirm the support our faculty can rely on at Holy Cross.

Academic freedom is a fundamental characteristic of our intellectual and moral community; it is also a source of guidance and support in moments of conflict.

Like other leading colleges and universities, and following long-established practice, Holy Cross is committed to providing the conditions in which our faculty and students can create new knowledge to advance our educational mission and serve the common good. Academic freedom, as traditionally understood, “consists in the freedom of mind, inquiry, and expression necessary for proper performance of professional obligations.” [1] Because academic research and teaching sometimes will challenge received knowledge or explore controversial subjects, it can lead to fierce disagreement, discomfort, and even offense. [2] 

Faculty speak as scholars and citizens; only the administration speaks on behalf of the College. [3] The academic freedom supported by the College—as at other leading colleges and universities—does not protect incitement to violence, defamation, threats and harassment, violations of personal privacy, or the overt promotion of discriminatory hatred against groups.[4] Such behaviors challenge the basic dignitary rights of all people, fall outside the boundaries of professional scholarly conduct, and inhibit our fundamental educational mission. 

History and experience show that members of minoritized groups are often disproportionately targeted for harassment and critique within expansive freedom of speech environments. [5] This can include targeted harassment like doxxing and threatening faculty members online. The College embraces its responsibility to cultivate a community in which intellectual liberty and mutual respect are fundamental and coeval qualities of our everyday life. In such conditions, we enable growth in insight and knowledge by supporting a rich array of perspectives within a framework of dialogue, openness to persuasion and freedom from internal or external retaliation or coercion. 

As members of the College community and members of a learned profession, our faculty likewise embrace their responsibilities to pursue their research, teaching, and work at the College with the highest standards of professional ethics and an abiding commitment to rules-based procedures. [6] Faculty are also the stewards of academic freedom and not just its beneficiaries. As scholars, we share in the responsibility to cultivate and uphold an environment within which inquiry, discovery, discussion, and learning can flourish. It is within such expansive conditions that institutions can be most self-reflective about their own histories and their future direction; our commitments to pluralism and inclusive excellence, for example, are enhanced by robust academic freedom. 

The ultimate purpose of academic freedom is to safeguard the conditions in which scholars are at liberty to produce and share knowledge to serve the common good and advance human flourishing. We invite our students into this work, often as co-creators of new knowledge, to advance their intellectual growth and affirm our vision of undergraduate liberal arts education that embraces the most challenging matters within a context of other-oriented service. 

Together we seek to create an intellectual and moral community at Holy Cross that welcomes and supports all of our members when they feel most at risk. Such conditions of liberty, in which colleagues enjoy the ability to speak persuasively and be heard, are anchored in the College’s deeply-held commitments to academic freedom as well as our Jesuit mission to form people for others in the service of justice. 

I am excited to work with you to explore these ideas and their lived experience at Holy Cross. As one example, in the Spring semester, I plan to convene a faculty seminar (or a community of practice) that invites colleagues to read and discuss key texts and materials related to academic freedom, campus speech, and the underlying conditions of scholarship, teaching, and learning. I invite interested colleagues to share suggestions for dialogue, programs, and activities to help us think together about these essential matters.

With gratitude and warmest wishes,

Elliott Visconsi
Provost and Dean of the College

[1]  Matthew Finkin & Robert Post, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom. Yale Univ. Press, 2011, 38.

[2] The University of Chicago’s Principles on Freedom of Expression have been broadly adopted or referenced by many colleges and universities. The Chicago Principles reaffirm the essential value of expansive liberty to pursue scholarly activities but also capture the traditional limits of academic freedom: “The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not … [mean] that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.… The University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.”

[3] 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.” The American Association of University Professors. 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

[4] In addition to the Chicago Principles referenced above, a representative sample of private college and university statements includes the following: Stanford, Williams, Georgetown, Davidson.

[5] Mary Anne Franks, “Feminism and the First Amendment,” in Research Handbook on Feminist Jurisprudence, eds. Cynthia Bowman & Robin West (Elgar, 2019).  Danielle Keats Citron, The Fight for Privacy (New York: W.W. Norton, 2022). Mari Matsuda, “Public Response to Racist Speech: Consider the Victim’s Story,” U. Michigan Law Review 87:8 (1989).

[6]  I find inspiration for this commitment in the AAUP’s “Statement on Professional Ethics.” See also Robert Post, “The Classic First Amendment Tradition Under Stress,” in The Free Speech Century, eds. Geoffrey Stone and Lee Bollinger (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2018).