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Q&A with Alice Dreger

by WISCAPE Staff | Feb 29, 2016
photo of Alice DregerIn advance of her visit to UW-Madison this week, we asked Alice Dreger to share her perspective on questions of academic freedom and how to protect it.

Dreger will ​present a WISCAPE talk this Friday, March 4, from 12 to 1:30 pm, to ​discuss her new book, Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science, and further examine the issues she touches on below. The talk is free and open to the public. Please join us!

Learn more about Alice Dreger's WISCAPE talk.

Is ‘freedom of research’ more in danger today than it once was, or has it always been a struggle? Why, or why not?

If that’s an empirical, quantitative question, I don’t have an answer. It sure feels to me like it is in more danger than ten or ​20 years ago, though. Today we see researchers’ work undermined by “progressive” identity politics activists, as I document extensively in Galileo’s Middle Finger. On occasion, they are joined by leftist “scholarly" societies in nefarious ways, as with the American Anthropological Association’s actions in the case of Napoleon Chagnon and James Neel. We also see defunding of university programs conducted by conservative politicians, as in the very troubling actions in North Carolina against Gene Nichols’ UNC poverty center. Add to this university administrators obsessed with protecting “brands”​ -- the reason for my own resignation from Northwestern Univer​sity last year​ -- to conservatives in Congress voting to require that all NSF-funded research be “in the national interest,” to what is happening in Wisconsin at the state level, and we have a very problematic situation on our hands.

What is the obligation of universities to support research that may be controversial?

It seems to me this is one of the primary obligations of universities, because any research could potentially become controversial, particularly in today’s tumultuous, social media-driven world. Without protection of freedom of research by university administrators, researchers are in a very precarious position​. They have to worry about ticking off not just their governor or a university’s major donor, but also any unemployed activist with an ax to grind and a Twitter account. (That doesn’t mean universities have to fully fund all research; that would be impossible.)

There are university administrators who do protect researchers whose work is controversial. In Galileo’s Middle Finger, for example, I tell the story of how Craig Palmer’s dean, Elizabeth Grobsmith, protected him when he was under fire for co-authoring A Natural History of Rape. I also tell the story of how, when he was beset by angry LGBT and animal rights activists, Chuck Roselli was assigned media expert Jim Newman at OHSU; Newman turned around the falsehoods being propagated about Roselli’s work on “gay” rams. For many years, until the dean under whom I resigned, I had numerous administrators at Northwestern University who protected me from requests that my work be stopped because it made certain powerful individuals upset. And my husband, who is interim dean at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine, has been making sure to protect his faculty member who is the chief whistleblower in the Flint water crisis​ -- and his work in that regard has been backed by the upper administration of MSU. It is easy to point to administrators who fail us, but many do not. Those who came from our ranks often shine when they need to. (This is why we need more who come from our ranks.) We need to see these people as our allies, and call on all administrators to protect us like these people have protected their faculty.

What steps can faculty take to protect themselves if they are engaged in controversial research?

The number one thing faculty can do is to get engaged with academic governance and re-establish systems of protection in their  own universities. This includes getting your university to adopt the Chicago Principles, but it also includes taking on individual cases where researchers need active support and defense. (Recognize that sometimes you’re going to have to protect and defend people with whom you disagree in the interest of protecting academic freedom.) Individually, faculty can protect themselves by being proactive before they are attacked and adequately defensive when they are attacked. That includes, especially, understanding how the media​ -- including journalists and pseudo-journalists​ -- work today. Last year I gave a lecture on this subject as the Constance Holden Award Address at the International Society for Intelligence Research, and the video of that talk is available online. I also recommend that faculty call on their scholarly societies to specifically work on protecting academic freedom, and not take stances on political issues, except where freedom of research, teaching, and expression are concerned.

How do concerns about academic freedom differ for tenured and non-tenured faculty?

I used to say that tenured faculty had more protection, but recent events suggest that is no longer necessarily true. It is often the case that non-tenured faculty perceive themselves as more vulnerable, and in general they are. But it is also the case that many non-tenured and tenured faculty perceive themselves as perhaps more vulnerable than they really are. If you wait for a position of complete protection before doing daring work or teaching, you are going to die waiting for that moment. Many people have said to me that “of course” I could do the intense work that went into Galileo’s Middle Finger because I had tenure. But I didn’t for the ten years I was at Northwestern. After I resigned my tenured position at Michigan State University to do more interesting work and raise our son, I moved to a part-time, non-tenured line at Northwestern, with a one-year renewable contract. I did have the protection of being married to a guy with a steady income and health insurance that covered both of us, so I don’t want to underestimate the level of economic protection I had​. However, he has also taken substantial political risks, because we both believe that the social good requires us to take those risks. I would not advocate being foolish, but I would advocate taking your time on earth to do something important, and that means taking some chances. Do so wisely, establish networks of support, treat others well​ -- but don’t spend your life waiting for the perfect armor.

Does academic freedom have limits? What responsibilities do faculty have as they share their research… or more broadly, when they discuss their politics or points of view?

We have a responsibility to be factually accurate, to teach what is relevant in a course and not merely what we feel like discussing that day, to be potentially offensive only when there is a purpose in that offense (merely being irritating is not a purpose), and to be honest about our subjective standpoints. As for how we manage ideas and words that make us uncomfortable, I would again refer to the Chicago Principles: “Although faculty, students, and staff are free to criticize, contest, and condemn the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.” I do not subscribe to the idea that we should never make our students uncomfortable. Being made uncomfortable by ideas is part of what we sign up for as faculty, students, and researchers. We didn’t get to where we are today in our democracy or our scholarship by shutting down people whose ideas make some folks uncomfortable.

Now, if we believe a colleague is being factually inaccurate in ways that are fundamentally dishonest, we have a duty to investigate and appropriately prosecute​ -- as in the case of Ward Churchill making up historical “facts” and ghost-writing articles on which he puts others’ names, so that he could then cite the articles in support of his own claims. In Galileo’s Middle Finger, I document another extremely egregious case of misrepresentations by a physician-researcher whom I believe should not be supported by a medical school, given what I and others have determined about her misrepresentations to funding agencies, scholarly journals, and patients who appear to have unwittingly become research fodder. Too often when we talk about “responsibility” we’re talking about the words or ideas people are using that are unnecessarily irritating others. There are plenty of bigger cases of dangerous irresponsibility within academia that we don’t adequately deal with, and we really should. If we take the pursuit of evidence as being at the center of our moral duties as scholars and teachers within a democracy​ -- and I think we must -- then our responsibility is to policing ourselves and each other first and foremost for accuracy. I wish we spent more time paying attention to this, and less time to allegedly offensive language and politics.

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