Carnegie Mellon University
December 03, 2020

Launch of the Commission on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression

Dear Members of the CMU Community:

Academic freedom and freedom of expression are values that lie at the very core of our academic mission. As I shared in my June 25 message to the campus community, recent events have created an opportunity for our community to examine and clarify the importance of these values at Carnegie Mellon and in our society, and to do so in a contemporary context that includes new mediums such as technology and social media.

Introduced in the late 19th century, academic freedom catalyzed the knowledge creation enterprise, protecting faculty and other community members from retribution for exploring the limits of human understanding through research, teaching and service. It protects the critical exchange of ideas that has sparked scientific innovation and important conversations about equity and justice, and has launched new areas of inquiry unbounded by the socio-political context of the day. At the same time, freedom of expression, a cornerstone of our democracy that is protected by the First Amendment, guarantees our right to speak our mind about matters of public concern in language appropriate for achieving our purpose. Although CMU is a private institution, given how pivotal free speech is to knowledge discovery and intellectual pursuits, decades ago the university made a conscious decision to uphold the First Amendment right of freedom of expression for all students, faculty and staff through our Freedom of Expression policy. We recognize that the two closely linked but distinct values of academic freedom and freedom of expression are not absolute, and that the boundaries that historically have applied to each should be further examined in today’s context; however, together they serve as the foundations of what we do at Carnegie Mellon.

Now more than ever, there exists a rising tension between our commitment to safeguarding these freedoms and our commitment to promoting an inclusive, civil and nurturing environment for all. As we facilitate important debate on critical issues, we recognize that in rare cases, such discourse may be offensive or alienating to individuals or groups on campus, even as those individuals or groups have the same freedom to refute those ideas to which they object, or which are contrary to our community’s values. This tension is exacerbated in the current American socio-political climate, and all the more so by the accelerated and pervasive impact of technology and social media.

These are very nuanced issues and making sure we all understand the tenuous boundaries that exist within these spheres is not only valuable but critical to ensuring that short-term decisions do not compromise deep-rooted, foundational values. Following up on my previous August 20 communication, and in order to create space for informed conversations on these topics, I have asked Provost Jim Garrett to chair a special commission to review CMU’s commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression as well as examine certain relevant policies and practices. This commission will also be served by the following vice-chairs: Jon Caulkins, the H. Guyford Stever University Professor of Operations Research and Public Policy, and Roberta Klatzky, the Charles J. Queenan, Jr. University Professor of Psychology and Human-Computer Interaction.

I am charging this Commission on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression to: 

  1. Create forums through which students, faculty and staff can discuss and explore the meaning and inherent value of both freedom of expression and academic freedom, including how they are distinct and the ways in which they collectively support our academic mission.
  2. Engage the campus community in discussion about the rising tension between upholding freedom of expression and supporting a campus environment that is inclusive and respectful. After conducting such community discussions, provide the commission’s recommendations on how the university can promote civil discourse and manage situations when these core values come into conflict, including how these considerations may affect the university’s Freedom of Expression policy.
  3. Explore how academic freedom as well as professional codes of conduct pertain to the expression of opinions in both professional and private capacities, with a particular focus on the contemporary context of social media and internet communication. In doing so, evaluate the current language in CMU’s Code of Business Ethics and Conduct, which specifically states that it is applicable to “individuals who are paid by the university when they are working for the university, including faculty, staff and students when working for the university.” 
  4. In addition to considering these macro issues, determine how they apply to the following questions related to university policies and practices:
    1. 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, and if so in what circumstances? 
    2. Should there be an additional process established when considering the hire of a highly visible public figure, while ensuring that any such process should avoid including any type of political or ideological litmus test?
  1. Share updates with the campus community on the progress of this commission as its work unfolds, as well as provide an interim report by the end of June 2021.

I am also asking the commission to rely on both internal and external expertise to provide advice and input throughout its work. 

The membership of this commission includes representation by faculty, students and staff and a full list of members is included on the commission’s webpage. I wish to thank Provost Jim Garrett for his leadership in chairing this important commission, as well as recognize and thank Professors Jon Caulkins and Roberta Klatzky for their willingness to serve as vice chairs. 

As I have communicated in the past, we are not the first university community to face these complex questions, and certainly we won’t be the last. Although they are neither simple nor clear cut, these are the types of issues that our community excels at tackling and I believe this commission will help Carnegie Mellon become a model for the rest of the nation in embracing civil discourse as a means to unify, educate and understand. 


Farnam Jahanian
Henry L. Hillman President's Chair