The Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has followed with deepening concern the process and news coverage surrounding the accusations by some students against Professor Leonard Kaplan of the Law School. Given that Professor Kaplan has not publicly commented on what he said in class, we refrain from commenting on any other details of the case at this time. That said, it is important to comment on a fundamental principle that is at the heart of the controversy. Namely, academic freedom.
There is a distinct possibility that the emotion and pressures surrounding this case—especially after the public meeting at the law school the evening of March 1—will have a chilling effect on honest and good faith discussion of racial and cultural issues in class and on campus. While good teaching requires that students be treated with respect, undue sensitivity and fear of accusations can cause professors and instructors to steer clear of controversy or uncomfortable truths that need to be discussed and faced if we are to improve as a society. Such pursuit of truth is the university's special charter and reason for existence.
Nothing in this statement is intended to justify the use of gratuitous offense or personal insult as an element of public discussion, whether inside or outside the classroom, and whether directed from faculty members to students or from students to members of the faculty. The university must be a place in which no member of the community has reason to fear expressing his or her ideas and feelings honestly and sincerely, within the bounds of civil discourse, very broadly defined. The university cannot accept efforts by any members of its community to silence others through intimidation, just as the university cannot accept the use of personal insult or denigrating stereotypes in the presentation of arguments.
There is a fundamental distinction between causing offense gratuitously and invidiously, and causing offense as the by-product of the fair-minded pursuit of truth or constructive criticism. A university of the caliber of UW-Madison, with its long history and tradition of protecting academic freedom in the "fearless sifting and winnowing of ideas" for the pursuit of truth, must take this distinction seriously, lest it surrenders its intellectual integrity.
We fear, however, that the crucial distinction between gratuitous offense and provocative argument has been lost in the public furor over the Kaplan case. We are dismayed at the Law School’s public response to this dispute, as it has addressed only the school's commitment to sensitivity and diversity, while saying nothing about that institution's fiduciary obligation to train minds to grapple with various sides of controversial and difficult issues. Without serious consideration of the importance and meaning of academic freedom on campus among the members of the university community, how can freedom prevail in the face of pressures from both left and right to make universities conform to one or another model of political correctness? We urge that the principles of academic freedom and fairness be a serious part of our community's response to the allegations that have been made concerning Professor Kaplan.
Signed by members of the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, UW-Madison
Ann Althouse, Mary Anderson, Anatole Beck, Michael Chamberlain, Donald Downs (President), Michael Fox, Robert Frykenberg, Lee Hansen, Lester Hunt, Larry Kahan, Anatoly Khazanov, Kenneth Mayer, Marshall Onellion, Dietram Scheufele, Howard Schweber, John Sharpless, Kenneth Thomas, Steven Underwood (Legal Counsel)
ADDED: UW Sociology professor Jeremy Freese writes: "if they asked the faculty more broadly to sign this, i would sign. since they haven't, i will only link to it."