Academic Freedom: A Basic Tenet

From the President,

From the President

This year, as in every year at Wellesley, we engaged in discussion and debate on campus about many issues. Three important debates, whose issues were seemingly quite different, focused on the same underlying theme: academic freedom.

Last summer, we launched a wonderfully successful academic program and conference on liberal arts and women’s leadership in partnership with Peking University (PKU). In the fall, many of our faculty rallied in suport of a PKU economics professor who said his teaching contract was not renewed because of his advocacy for academic freedom and human rights. In light of this allegation, a number of faculty members felt that the College should reconsider its partnership with PKU. It was a complicated issue, but after a few months of vigorous debate, our faculty voted to reaffirm their partnership. I am pleased that they did so, because it is my strong belief that academic freedom everywhere thrives when international partnerships are formed and supported. Wellesley and PKU have an opportunity to learn from each other, informed by our differences. While we can never fully know all the reasons for Professor Xia Yeliang’s dismissal last fall, and there is still disagreement on campus about that, there is general agreement that he has been a vocal advocate for academic freedom and human rights.

And then, over the winter, several discipline-specific scholarly associations, including the American Studies Association, called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, arguing that those institutions were complicit in Israel’s violation of the human rights of Palestinians. This action by the scholarly organizations provoked discussions in our community and around the world, and prompted me to respond publicly with a statement opposing the boycott—not on political grounds, since I do not think that is my role as president—but rather on moral and ethical grounds, because boycotts of that nature attack the very core of the academy. No matter the politics, cutting ties with colleagues around the world does nothing to promote tolerance, understanding, or a diverse exchange of ideas. It is an assault on our primary strength, and on our reason for being.

I am proud to be part of a community where women feel free to argue passionately for what they believe in—and a college that has a long history of just that.

In February, you no doubt saw the news unfold about the installation of the Sleepwalker sculpture at Wellesley, as part of a larger exhibition, Tony Matelli: New Gravity. The response it generated on campus, and off, resulted in extensive conversation about art, feminism, artistic and academic freedom, and censorship, to name a few topics. It was a difficult but useful set of conversations. As I wrote in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal in February, I am proud to be part of a community where women feel free to argue passionately for what they believe in—and a college that has a long history of just that.

Academic freedom is the basic tenet of our educational system and is one of the values that we must continue to uphold. When those values are challenged, questioned, or threatened by others, it is our right—indeed, it is our duty—as individuals, as a College community, and as a global academic insititution to speak up and to speak out.

These conversations at Wellesley this year have been challenging. There were times when our community felt divided. But these conversations have been an important reminder of the strength of our liberal-arts environment—where difference of opinion is respected and valued, and where many different voices cna join in a debate about important and difficult issues.

Academic freedom is never easy. It is, however, the bulwark, the sine qua non, of our enterprise, and I am proud to be at Wellesley where it is firmly, consistently, and strongly upheld.

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