The Academic Bill of Rights: Yea or Nay?
A 2004 Laurentian Leadership
Weekend colloquium shows where many Laurentians stand
By Neal Burdick ’72
It was, said President Daniel F. Sullivan, reminiscent of the 8 o’clock
classes that used to be the bane of students’ lives—and
as if that were not enough, this one was on a Sunday. And they’d
had homework. But, the president reminded his audience, they’d
asked for it.
“They” were the 50 alumni, parents, friends and other
Laurentian Leadership Weekend 2004 guests assembled in Eben Holden
Dining Hall last October 10, and “it” was a critical issues
colloquium that tackled, in President Sullivan’s words, “A
perennial issue for all colleges and universities, the matter of freedom
of speech and inquiry and, in a narrower sense specific to the academy,
the matter of academic freedom.” Narrowing the topic even further,
he asked those on hand to advise him on the question, “ Should
St. Lawrence University support or oppose the Academic Bill of Rights?”
Before directing the guests into discussion groups, President Sullivan
provided some historical context. He recalled John Milton’s famous
1644 treatise Areopagitica, in which Milton argued that “freedom
of speech, the freedom to publish, and the freedom to inquire are all
essential to the creation of new knowledge.” This was a goal
that American colleges and universities began adopting not until early
20 th century, when some took upon themselves a research mission and
the great research universities were born.
But from the beginning, at a great many of these new research institutions, “speaking
or inquiring freely put relatively powerless faculty members at risk
of suppression or firing at the hands of very powerful university leaders,
trustees and, in the case of public institutions, legislators, who
believed they already knew the truth and just wanted faculty to teach
it,” President Sullivan continued. “And so there came into
being the linkage between academic freedom and academic tenure” as
a protection of that freedom for the purpose of helping to ensure discovery
and the growth of knowledge. At issue is whether the proposed Academic
Bill of Rights protects or threatens those freedoms.
So inspired (and fortified with bagels, fruit and lots of coffee),
the assemblage metamorphosed into three subsets, each led by a faculty
member/Alumni Council member pair: Assistant Professor of Sociology
Danielle Egan and Holly Steuerwald ’89, attorney and director
of alumni affairs, Albany College of Law; Associate Dean of Faculty
Affairs and Associate Professor of English Margaret Kent Bass and Jeff
Honeywell ’80, attorney and president of the Alumni Executive
Council; and Assistant Professor of Philosophy Laura Rediehs and Stephen
Todd ’92, assistant principal at Watertown (N.Y.) High School.
Each of the three groups made their way through their hour together
in much the same way as the others, and came to much the same conclusion.
As many questions orbiting the main topic were posed as were probed:
· Should protection of academic freedom be extended to students
to the same degree as to faculty? Are there limits to that freedom?
Who determines those limits, and how would they be enforced?
· When the University provides Web space, are those who use
it speaking on behalf of the institution – and are they perceived
to be, whether or not they are?
· Is ideological balance in an academic institution necessary,
and would achieving it be a violation of the very freedom it would
be intended to guarantee? If a professor is not open to diverse views,
what should be done?
· Where is the line between lively discussion and verbal assault?
· How do we teach civility, especially since high schools
apparently aren’t doing it anymore?
Underneath a few abstractions that people kept returning to (“We
need to be civil to each other”), many cogent points were made:
-Dean of Academic Affairs Grant Cornwell ’79: There is a distinction
between freedom of speech and academic freedom. Academic freedom relates
to inquiry and the search for knowledge.
-Anne Ferris Cassidy ’74: Without some rules, communication
is impossible. With guidelines, we have discourse. Without guidelines,
we have babble.
-John Parker: I’d rather know what people are thinking, so
I can respond fully informed, than get only part of what they’re
-Alex Kirby Taylor ’89: It would be hard to create balance
based on politics or anything else. I can’t imagine a hiring
philosophy that says, “We’ve hired three Democrats; now
we have to hire three Republicans.” But there has to be agreement
to be open to diverse ideas.
-Bonnie McGuire Jones ’73: I find it offensive to consider
a political litmus test. Faculty should be hired and evaluated on the
basis of the quality of their teaching and scholarship as determined
by peer review.
-Cornwell: We look for experts in teaching and scholarship, without
regard to political views. We want to expose students to diverse views
across the curriculum, but not necessarily in every course.
-Jim Blanchard ’62: There should be no Title IX-type tracking
of any balance – that would be an administrative nightmare.
-Don O’Brien ’49: I want no engineering, but we should
create a climate of openness and respect.
-Ken Okoth ’01: In an academic environment, people change their
minds based on exposure to different points of view. Professors should
be up front with their own points of view, and challenge students.
-Walter Jennings ’84: All of us, whether liberal or conservative,
have been exposed to great teaching. With great teaching, we learn
to make up our own minds.
-Nancy Brush ’53: We send students to liberal arts colleges
to be exposed to different ideas. I’d hate for my St. Lawrence
two grandchildren to hear only what they want to hear. We’ve
all worked in environments where we’ve been restricted in our
personal speech. One should feel freer in an academic community. Where
else in the world can you have such freedoms?
-Prof. Steve Horwitz: As professors, we want to "profess." That
is, we want to give our own views in class. But, we have to make sure
that students give their views, too, whether we agree with them or
-Prof. Danielle Egan: That's part of what we do – we shake
up your world view. That's our job. Adults have difficulty with this,
so it is really a challenge in class to help students understand that
it is the argument, not the person, that is under scrutiny. It would
concern me to have an administrative organization decide what's right.
-Prof. Laura Rediehs: Many professors set out ground rules for discussion,
such as “attack ideas, not people.”
-Pat Romeo-Gilbert ’74: Students come here not ready for criticism.
They don't get it in secondary school, because parents don't want their
children criticized. High schools don't do that. I think the most important
thing is that every idea is respected. That's the cornerstone of academic
-Deena Giltz McCullough ’84: When I was a student, I wrote
an article for The Hill News that was controversial, and I
was confronted by people. That was a good lesson; I had to defend my
views. High schools do a bad job of preparing students for this, so
I'm glad that it’s one thing that is addressed in the First-Year
-Jones: The health care industry has had to create ethics committees
to deal with potential abuse of power. The greatest challenge is to
create a culture in which such a committee does not have to be created.
At college, maybe the entire community is the ethics committee—we
should rely on the community to sanction inappropriate, even hateful
-Lennie Dougherty McKinnon ’58: If we have a diverse student
body, there’s no need for any legislation.
Those final few observations seemed to sum up the sentiments of most.
When reconvened by President Sullivan, they didn’t seem inclined
to vote on anything, but their feelings were clear. The president rephrased
his earlier charge: “Imagine an Academic Bill of Rights is introduced – what
position should the president of St. Lawrence University take? What
rules of conduct should we agree to abide by?”
“We are an intellectual community--guidelines should come from
within, not from legislation,” said Pat Romeo-Gilbert ’74. “The
key is respect,” added Ellen Fitts-Byrne ’74.
“But what is respect, and how do we teach it?” asked
Laura Rediehs, eliciting from President Sullivan the comment, “She’s
one of our philosophy professors– she always
asks tough questions.”
“To gain respect, you must give respect,” said Anne Ferris
Cassidy. “Respect begins at home,” added Fitts-Byrne.
“But,” interjected Steve Horwitz, returning to a point
he had addressed in his breakout group, “Where is the line between
vigorous argument and disrespect?”
“The line is drawn at making your point without demeaning your
opponent,” said Jack Elmer ’55.
“The issue is not where’s the line; it’s how does
the University respond to crossing the line, wherever it is?” rejoined
Jeff Honeywell ’80. “There needs to be a policy.”
After a well-placed if good-natured jab about Honeywell’s profession – the
law – and its propensity for policies, President Sullivan pointed
out that St. Lawrence does have a discriminatory harassment policy.
It prohibits “demeaning, intimidating or hostile verbal, physical
or symbolic behavior that is directed at an identifiable individual
or group and that is based on that individual or group’s race,
religion, ethnicity, age, gender, national origin, disability or sexual
orientation, and has the effect of interfering with a reasonable person’s
academic or work performance or of creating an intimidating or hostile
situation or environment.” The policy goes on to say that it
does not “proscribe, and should not limit free discussion of
the merits of any issue relating to ethnic, racial, religious or other
multicultural difference or open inquiry into any material or issue
relevant to the academic content of a course.” “These limits,” the
president said, “are linked directly to actions against protected
groups and do not constrain even highly charged normal political discourse.” In
response to a comment from Bill Ruddock ’79 that the University
must adhere to federal guidelines, President Sullivan said, “Many
of the issues treated in those guidelines– race, sexual orientation
and so on--are not choices individuals make, but political persuasion
is, and it should play no role in hiring and tenure decisions.”
“I feel the University has an obligation to step in when disrespect
is shown, but not with legislation,” said Walter Jennings ’84. “We
are slow to come down hard,” President Sullivan responded. “That’s
proper, but I’m sometimes uncomfortable – it looks as if
we’re doing nothing. We should use instances of disrespect as
“College is the time and place to learn to express one’s
views,” said Prof. Egan. “Regarding Laura Rediehs’s
question, we also need to teach listening skills.”
“That’s the best argument for the liberal arts,” said
President Sullivan. “It’s the best argument for our First-Year
Program,” added Deena Giltz McCullough ’84.
It was time to draw the proceedings to a conclusion. President Sullivan
once again asked the gathering to vote on whether he should support
an Academic Bill of Rights. They looked at him as though the answer
to that ought to be obvious; a few frowned or shook their heads no.
Then, with a hearty thank-you from the president, they dispersed into
the cool sunshine of a colorful October campus morning.