Final Report from the Commission on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression
Dear Members of the Carnegie Mellon University Community:
I am writing to share the Commission on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression’s final report and to provide a roadmap for implementing the report’s recommendations.
As I wrote at the time of its launch in December 2020, the commission is making space for our community to examine and clarify the importance of these freedoms, especially in a contemporary context that includes social media and other communication platforms.
The activities and final report of the commission serve to endorse the centrality of academic freedom and freedom of expression to our mission, while also underscoring the need to address the growing tension between them and our commitment to an inclusive and respectful environment.
Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression (AF/FoE) in a Contemporary Context
Freedom of expression and academic freedom are essential to well-functioning universities and are core to a vibrant democracy. Given how sacrosanct they both are, it is concerning to watch the gradual erosion of these freedoms – especially freedom of expression – due to political polarization, ideological groups and the impact of social media. A recent poll conducted by the Knight Foundation reported that more than half of surveyed students believe free speech rights are threatened.
At Carnegie Mellon, we are firm in our deep-rooted commitment to these freedoms. Academic freedom catalyzes the knowledge creation enterprise, protecting faculty and other community members from retribution for exploring the limits of human understanding through research, teaching and service. And free speech is the bedrock of any institution that values learning in a diverse community. We are steadfast in our belief that the right to free expression is paramount — even if the content is controversial, unpopular or perceived as hurtful – as is the right of members of our community to counter content with which they disagree. This open exchange of ideas is often easier in theory than in practice, but it is critical to our mission that we continue to uphold this tradition in the classroom, on campus and beyond.
At times a tension may appear between a commitment to safeguarding AF/FoE and a commitment to promoting an inclusive and respectful environment; however, as the commission report points out, these commitments are not mutually exclusive and in fact, are mutually reinforcing. I firmly believe that, in articulating AF/FoE as core university values, we will be better able to welcome diverse perspectives and ensure a climate of respectful dialogue. The work of the commission promotes greater understanding of the boundaries and connections between these spheres, and therefore helps our community stay rooted in our foundational values and resilient in the face of challenges to them.
The Commission’s Impact to Date and Recommendations
In my charge to the commission, I asked them to create forums through which students, faculty and staff can explore the meaning and inherent value of these freedoms, including how they are distinct and the ways in which they collectively support our academic mission. I also asked them to explore matters related to university policies and practices.
For almost two years, the students, faculty and staff of the commission have been engaged in this work, under the leadership of Provost Jim Garrett as chair and two 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. Among other activities, the commission invited high-profile scholars to engage the CMU community in productive dialogue. While these scholars represent a range of views on the political spectrum, the consistency of their message about the foundational importance of these freedoms is striking.
These activities and the feedback of our community have informed the recommendations that the commission put forth in the final report. These recommendations are briefly summarized on the commission webpage. They range from talent development and educational opportunities to internal policy and procedure review.
I accept the commission’s recommendations and as an immediate next step, I have asked Provost Garrett to carry out the first recommendation by forming an Implementation Steering Committee to provide administrative oversight as the remaining recommendations are executed at the university, school or department level. In the coming weeks, Provost Garrett will share the composition of and next steps for this committee, which will be tailored to support the proposed recommendations, drawing on input from students, faculty and staff as appropriate. In the weeks and months ahead, we will continue to build on these important conversations and reinforce our commitment to these freedoms.
I wish to express my sincere gratitude to everyone who passionately engaged in this vital undertaking, especially the members of the commission. In particular, I greatly appreciate the diligence and thoughtfulness that Provost Garrett and professors Caulkins and Klatzky have brought to these dialogues. I am also grateful to the community members who have spoken with me or the provost, or otherwise contributed to these conversations, including members of the Faculty Senate, Staff Council and Student Government.
As I have communicated in the past, we are not the only university community engaged in facing nuanced questions related to freedom of expression and academic freedom in a modern society. The commission’s recommendations will help us become a model for the rest of the nation for how to embrace the power of discourse to unify, educate and build bridges, as well as support learning and discovery that brings diverse perspectives to our world. I look forward to continuing this meaningful journey together.
Henry L. Hillman President’s Chair