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‘Academic freedom’ supporters should try to be a bit more authentic

PEN America remains missing in action

Supporters of academic freedom might earn some authenticity points if they actually spoke up when right-leaning professors or faintly conservative research faced attacks from the Left.

The College Fix has run a handful of stories about cancellation attempts targeting industry-funded research or scholars who have ties to oil, gas and coal companies. Yet leading free speech groups including PEN America were found 4-F, unfit for duty, when it came to defending this obvious issue of academic freedom.

PEN America was quick to defend a Wayne State University professor who wrote on Facebook that it would be better to kill right-wing “transphobes” than to just “shout them down,” but when it came to attempts to bar funding of professors who conduct research with money from oil companies, the group was nowhere to be found. It must have been busy writing fundamentally flawed research on “book bans.”

“We are continuing to evaluate this issue but we are unable to comment at this time,” media relations representative Suzanne Trimel told The Fix on one occasion. The group was similarly M.I.A. when it came to efforts by a national student group to prevent “fossil fuel lawyers” from teaching at law schools. Trimel said the group did not currently “have a position on this issue. But we are following developments.”

Both the Academic Freedom Alliance and Harvard University’s new Council on Academic Freedom were both unable to make a firm statement that targeting someone for their connections to industry is an issue.

AFA’s Academic Committee does “not have a position to share on this topic at this time,” a representative told The Fix when asked about attempts to ban industry-funded research. The group is in a bit of a sticky situation – one of its founding members, Cornel West, has signed similar petitions in the past. And no surprise – PEN America did not respond to requests for comment on that petition either.

West’s friend at Princeton University, Professor Robert George, touts his support for academic freedom. He is also a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance and released a statement in 2017 with West that criticized “campus illiberalism.” George did not respond to comment requests for this article nor the April 2022 article about efforts involving West to restrict research funded by oil and gas companies.

Is it something about Ivy League colleges? The Council on Academic Freedom said it “doesn’t at present have a stance on prohibitions on research funded by oil and gas companies” but that “is committed to free inquiry which requires that researchers should have broad discretion to conduct research on topics they think are important,” according to professor and Executive Director Flynn Cratty.

The Fix emailed Cratty again to see if the group had a comment on attempts by Harvard activists to get a law professor to quit the board of ConocoPhillips, but he did not respond to a Wednesday morning email. Professor Freeman is not even conservative – she was a climate adviser to President Barack Obama, but she is being targeted for merely being associated with an oil and gas company, even though she said she uses her role to advocate for climate measures.

Not all groups are inauthentic when it comes to this issue – the American Association of University Professors and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education both criticized the efforts to ban research funding. FIRE even changed its position from a few months prior.

Other groups could learn from them and gain some further street cred on this topic.

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IMAGE: PEN America

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Matt has previously worked at Students for Life of America, Students for Life Action and Turning Point USA. While in college, he wrote for The College Fix as well as his college newspaper, The Loyola Phoenix. He holds a B.A. from Loyola University-Chicago and an M.A. from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He lives in northwest Indiana with his family.