August 20, 2020
Dear Members of the CMU Community:
I am writing to follow up on the memo I sent to the CMU community at the end of June regarding the decision of Dr. Kiron Skinner, Director of the Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS), to appoint Ambassador Richard Grenell to be a senior fellow in the institute for this academic year. Mr. Grenell’s staff position is similar to many other temporary “in-residence” positions across CMU. His appointment is for one academic year and is being funded by gifts made for the general support of IPS.
Dr. Skinner’s appointment of Mr. Grenell was met by petitions and numerous notes of objection, as well as several notes of support. In response to the objections, I announced the appointment of a special committee to review whether Mr. Grenell's appointment was considered and approved in a manner that was consistent with university policies and procedures. I also announced that a broader commission would be convened to review issues relating to academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus, as well as to review our current practices relating to the appointment of fellows and other “in-residence” positions. Today’s memo will first provide an update on the progress made by the first committee, before outlining next steps moving forward.
This committee was chaired by Dr. Mark Kamlet, University Professor of Economics and Public Policy, and included Dr. Denise Rousseau, the HJ Heinz II University Professor of Organizational Behavior, and Dr. Randy Bryant, University Professor of Computer Science. Together, they brought decades of academic and administrative experience to this work, including service as provost, two prior deanships, and two terms of service as chair of the Faculty Senate. On behalf of the entire CMU community, I want to thank Mark, Denise and Randy for their work on this special committee, and for bringing their significant collective wisdom and expertise to bear on this matter.
As part of their review, the committee “reviewed documents regarding the appointment, including the offer letter, as well as University policies on appointments, employment and employee rights and responsibilities.” They “interviewed [Dr.] Skinner and the staff who were involved in her hiring of Mr. Grenell,” “the three deans who oversee …. IPS, as well as the Provost.” Further they “reviewed documents and letters sent by opponents of Mr. Grenell’s hire, as well as his defenders” and “a number of documents about and statements by Mr. Grenell, including television interviews, social media posts, and web pages[.]”
The committee recently delivered its report to me. I accept the committee’s report and its conclusions that all existing and relevant policies and procedures were followed. As such, I affirm that Dr. Skinner had the discretion to appoint Ambassador Grenell to be a senior fellow in IPS, and further affirm the subsequent decisions of the deans and the provost permitting her to proceed. The committee’s report is attached here, and I strongly encourage each of you to read it in its entirety.
I also note that the committee raised concerns about Mr. Grenell’s activity on social media, especially activity prior to joining CMU. The committee concluded that “the general tone of many of his communications is dismissive and disrespectful of the opinions of others.” They noted, however, that there is a question as to “whether we would expect someone coming from outside academia to have abided by its principles beforehand as a condition of employment.” By virtue of his right to free speech, Mr. Grenell is able to speak his mind about matters of public concern, in language he thinks is appropriate for achieving his purpose. But so long as he is a member of the CMU community, as the Committee noted, “we fully expect him to follow all University policies and the more general principles of academic freedom” and that as the head of IPS, it “will be incumbent on [Dr.] Skinner to make sure he understands this requirement and holds him accountable.” That notwithstanding, as the Committee recognized, the very nature of social media complicates the application of such standards in the context of personal social media activity, which I address more fully below.
The committee also acknowledged that (although this position is not a faculty appointment, but rather is a visiting position similar to an “in-residence” practitioner or artist), the title of Senior Fellow seems to “confer some degree of CMU’s reputation on the recipient.” Furthermore, they suggested that the hiring of “highly visible public figures,” especially with such a title, might necessitate additional scrutiny. The committee recommended that the university address this issue moving forward, and so we will add this to the broader commission’s charge as outlined below.
Now that the first committee has delivered its report, we turn to the appointment of the broader commission. While we had originally intended to announce the appointment of this commission by the end of July, I decided to wait for the first committee to complete its work before doing so, in order to allow their report to inform the work of this larger commission. We will announce that commission in the next several weeks.
Pending that announcement, let me reiterate the questions that we will expect the commission to address:
- Does our current practice of affording wide discretion to the heads of departments, centers and institutes to make appointments for positions such as fellows, artists-in-residence, entrepreneurs-in-residence, visiting faculty, professors of the practice, and the like, without further substantive review, serve the university well, or should additional levels of review be required?
The first committee proposed a related question as to what “processes can be established to allow a robust and open discussion when hiring highly visible public figures, whether as staff or faculty,” while ensuring that “any such process should carefully avoid including any type of political or ideological litmus test.”
- How do principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression apply to the first question? And, as posed by the first committee, to what extent should our policies on academic freedom, freedom of expression, and ethical and professional conduct, pertain to the expression of opinions, especially on social media?
With respect to the second question, I note that the prevalence of social media and the ability of individuals to engage in immediate and unmediated speech with a vast public audience have raised new challenges for universities across the country, but our commitment to building an inclusive community dedicated to scholarship, teaching, and critical inquiry remains the same. We hope that a campus-wide dialogue will lead to a greater understanding among the community of the rights and responsibilities of academic freedom and their relation to freedom of speech in an era of social media. I particularly look forward to the commission’s work specifically in this regard.
Controversies over free speech on college campuses have always been notoriously difficult because the stakes are so vitally important. Freedom of thought and academic freedom are core to our academic mission and are critical for creating a fertile environment for learning, creativity and knowledge creation. For centuries, U.S. universities have thrived precisely because of this model of diverse perspectives and ideas coming together in a culture of civil discourse and debate. When we encounter ideas that we believe are wrong, or which we find offensive, the remedy is not to suppress them, it is to refute them. But now more than ever, there is a rising tension between our commitment to promote an inclusive and nurturing learning environment for all, including those who have traditionally suffered discrimination, and our commitment to safeguard free expression. These tensions are exacerbated in the current socio-political climate, and all the more so by the immediate and pervasive impact of technology and social media.
We are not the first university community to face issues like these, and certainly we won’t be the last. Although they are neither simple nor clear cut, these are the type of issues that CMU excels at tackling. I am confident that our community will be able to work through them civilly and with rigorous debate. As we do, let us also commit to developing opportunities for members of our community to become better acquainted with the principles of academic freedom, and the interplay and distinction between the rights of academic freedom and freedom of speech, as these freedoms lie at the very foundation of the Academy — and our democracy.
Henry L. Hillman President’s Chair