Education

A Half-Hearted Cheer for Northeastern University’s Tepid Defense of ‘Hate’

Northeastern University professor Suzanna Walters in 2014 (WBGH/YouTube)
The institution stands up for academic freedom while restricting student speech.

In a controversy that wasn’t, earlier this month Suzanna Walters, professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University, took to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post to ask: “Why can’t we hate men?” Heavy on hashtags and light on lucidity, the resulting piece read more like a parody of feminism than the handiwork of a serious scholar:

So men, if you really are #WithUs and would like us to not hate you for all the millennia of woe you have produced and benefited from, start with this: Lean out so we can actually just stand up without being beaten down. Pledge to vote for feminist women only. Don’t run for office. Don’t be in charge of anything. Step away from the power. We got this. And please know that your crocodile tears won’t be wiped away by us anymore. We have every right to hate you.

Vastly more interesting than the piece itself, however, was the reaction it garnered — or, more accurately, didn’t. There was a bit of online harrumphing, and some wonderment that the Washington Post — self-styled champion of tolerance — would proudly feature an essay promulgating gender-based hatred. But unlike the cases of many other professors — Randa Jarrar, George Cicarriello-Maher, Bruce Gilley, etc. — the would-be controversy dissipated before it had even picked up steam.

There are several reasons for this. One was that Walters had the good sense to channel her hatred at men — as opposed to, say, women, transgendered individuals, or another group that academics find sympathetic. Another important reason, however, was the response by Walters’s institution, Northeastern University. In a statement, Northeastern spokeswoman Shannon Nargi lightly rebuffed Walters’s message while defending her right to ramble dyspeptically on gender issues:

Northeastern University steadfastly supports a safe and inclusive learning and working environment in which hate has no place. The university has more than 1,000 faculty members whose viewpoints span the entire political spectrum. Consistent with our unwavering commitment to academic freedom, the opinions of an individual professor do not reflect the views of the university or its leadership. Northeastern is committed to fostering an environment in which controversial ideas can be discussed, debated and challenged.

This statement echoes Northeastern’s excellent academic-freedom policy, which subscribes to the American Association of University Professors’s 1940 statement on academic freedom and reads, in part:

The University will impose no limitations upon the freedom of faculty members in the exposition of the subjects they teach, either in the classroom or elsewhere. Faculty members may not claim as a right the privilege of discussing controversial matters outside their own particular fields of study in the classroom. The University will also impose no limitations upon the freedom of faculty members in research and the publication of the results.

Northeastern’s stance deserves commendation. Professors should be able to make controversial arguments without fear of institutional sanction — even if some observers might regard those arguments as repugnant. Defending academic freedom also seems to be tactically prudent; in this case, the online outrage mob quickly moved on to rubberneck the next dumpster fire. Other colleges and universities would do well to take note: By maintaining a firm policy of academic freedom to fall back upon, and refusing to vacillate or kowtow, Northeastern was able to avoid becoming the next battleground in the culture wars.

Northeastern deserves credit for defending the right of their faculty to preach noxious doctrines. But it’s equally important to note the institution’s faint-heartedness when it comes to protecting student speech.

That said, it’s important to put this incident in context. Many have rightly wondered whether someone making the opposite argument would have enjoyed the same staunch support that Walters received. Doubtful. As we have seen time and again, certain “controversial” statements are more equally protected than others. And, of course, there’s also the question of whether a teacher who openly professes her hatred of men can educate her male students in a fair and unbiased manner.

Setting such speculation aside, there is one clear double-standard at work here: If Walters were a Northeastern student and had made the same argument in a gender-studies classroom, her speech would have been deemed harassment under university policy. The Northeastern code of student conduct expressly prohibits “harassment,” “bullying,” or “abuse of others” motivated “in whole or part by prejudice toward an individual’s or group’s real or perceived race, color, religion, religious creed, genetics, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, national origin, ancestry, veteran status, or disability.”

And, if a student had written for a blog or campus publication what Walters published in a national newspaper, they would have run afoul of additional policies. The Northeastern student handbook prohibits university computer and network resources from being used to “harass, threaten, defame, slander, or intimidate any individual or group” or “generate and/or spread intolerant or hateful material, which in the sole judgment of the University is directed against any individual or group, based on race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, age, gender, marital status, sexual orientation,” and so on. That last caveat — “which in the sole judgment of the University” — is particularly Orwellian.

Northeastern deserves credit for defending the right of its faculty to preach noxious doctrines. But it’s equally important to note the institution’s faint-heartedness when it comes to protecting student speech. After all, how fruitful can classroom learning really be if students are barred from engaging in the same types of arguments that their instructors are free to make? When such freedoms are reserved for those at the lectern, the mission of higher education is compromised and free inquiry descends into indoctrination.

Frederick M. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Grant Addison is the program director for education-policy studies at AEI.

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