Across the world today, academic freedom is endangered. Political leaders in Brazil, India, Poland and Turkey have all recently threatened professors. Two of the world’s most powerful states, China and Russia, are famous for monitoring what universities teach. Authoritarian-minded leaders attack professors because such scholars are experts in their domains of knowledge and because, by their profession, they are committed to seeking and sharing truth -- even when they are challenging political and economic power and thus risking their lives and livelihoods.
In the United States, such explicit efforts to undermine academics are less common. Instead, the erosion of academic freedom has occurred more subtly. Much press has been devoted to President Trump’s recent executive order requiring that colleges and universities protect free speech. The executive order no doubt reflects the president’s constituents’ concerns that college campuses are limiting the expression of conservative ideas. Yet even for those who believe (as I do) that we need more conservative voices on campus, the president’s order is worrisome. It implies that he believes that the federal government should perhaps police the content of speech and thought on campuses.
By Johann Neem, chair of Western’s History Department