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An open letter to President Lawrence

Published: September 19, 2014
Section: Opinions, Top Stories


Dear President Lawrence,

We, the English Department, along with colleagues whose names appear below, write to you to express our strongest possible support for the principle of scholarly free speech and free inquiry, which is unequivocally protected by the Faculty Handbook. Free speech, especially for those of us in the humanities and social sciences, is not just a right but also a professional sine qua non, without which we cannot have a full and rich scholarly life.

We agree with recent statements by colleagues such as Natalie Zemon Davis and Ali Behdad (as President of the American Comparative Literature Association) that delineate the importance of free speech, and that warn against “the invocation of incivility as a pretext to silence or punish those who express unpopular views.” And we wish to support our colleague Mary Campbell and other Brandeis faculty recently attacked for political statements made in a restricted Brandeis faculty venue.

We hope you will swiftly and publicly clarify the right of professors to express opinions and explore ideas without fear of reprisal, and that you will make a public statement—not just orally to the faculty, but in a form that will reach the wider Brandeis community and beyond—that defends Brandeis faculty members when they are attacked for expressing their views.

We are eager to hear your expression of this support for our colleagues because in your letter to the faculty of July 28, you denounced “crude and vulgar” political opinions, and “disrespectful, offensive and inflammatory expressions.” You did so in such general terms that many among us, including vulnerable junior colleagues and contract faculty, (on whom the university increasingly depends as a labor force) were not even sure what sorts of statements you might be denouncing.

More troubling still, at a time when only you were in a position to speak out courageously in defense of the good name of the university, your only documented response to a recent and widely circulated inaccurate assault on our colleagues’ expression of their views was to reiterate your July letter, in which you “condemn these statements in no uncertain terms.” Coming from our own President, especially aired in public, such a condemnation can damage the intellectual life of the university—as well as making it difficult for us to attract and hire scholars of the caliber Brandeis traditionally recruits.

We count on our President to defend faculty against unjust criticism; without such support academics have little shelter. Mary Campbell has been the subject of a barrage of hate mail and other insults, and we would hope that the President would defend any faculty member against such an onslaught.

The tumultuous events of this year present an opportunity to demonstrate both to each other as a community, and to others that we are a university that debates difficult issues of the day vigorously, that we are not afraid to disagree with each other, that we see this as a model of a mode of inquiry and debate for our students. We look forward to just such dialogue, and we look forward to continue working with you for the greater good of Brandeis.

Respectfully,

The Professors of the English Department
Aliyyah Abdur-Rahman, Ulka Anjaria, Olga Broumas, Mary Baine Campbell, William Flesch, Caren Irr, Thomas King, Susan Lanser, Paul Morrison, John Plotz, Laura Quinney, David Sherman, Dawn Skorczewski, Faith Smith, Ramie Targoff