Academic Freedom, Radical Hospitality, and the Necessity of Counterspeech

Institutions of higher learning must have the courage to speak out against organizations that seek to undermine our basic educational mission.
By Marco Abel and Julia Schleck

On August 25, 2017, an undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln set up a table in the plaza in front of the student union in order to promote the right-wing organization Turning Point USA (TPUSA). She hoped to persuade other students to join her in establishing a TPUSA chapter on UNL’s campus. A graduate student and part-time lecturer named Courtney Lawton saw the table, and though she did not recognize the person behind it, she did recognize TPUSA as the group that had been targeting faculty members through its McCarthyite Professor Watchlist and had sponsored racist events on other campuses, such as “affirmative action bake sales.” Lawton decided to protest TPUSA, and she extended her protest to the undergraduate herself, profanely objecting to both. The undergraduate filmed the protest on her phone and then sent the video to TPUSA, which shared it with allied right-wing media outlets such as Campus Watch and Campus Reform. These groups encouraged viewers to call the university and demand that Lawton be dismissed from her teaching position.

This scenario, and the uproar that followed it, conformed to a pattern now familiar at institutions across the country. Although the precipitating incident varies—from public research to tweets to class assignments—once the incident is framed and promoted by a tightly coordinated set of national right-wing media outlets, the flood of harassment begins. The targeted faculty member is inundated with calls and messages ranging from polite expressions of dismay to vicious threats of violence against the individual and his or her family. Demands for punitive action against the faculty member are sent to every level of the administration. As it has become increasingly apparent that such attacks are unlikely to cease anytime soon, administrators and faculty members across the country have been confronted with the challenge of deciding how to respond.

UNL and University of Nebraska system administrators exemplified the uncertainty that many of their counterparts across the United States have shown when faced with this situation. Under not only national but also local political pressure, University of Nebraska system president Hank Bounds initially condemned Lawton’s protest on his Twitter account, then joined UNL chancellor Ronnie Green in penning a spirited defense of free speech and academic freedom published in the local paper. Ultimately, they suspended Lawton from her teaching duties for the spring semester (after having already removed her from the classroom for the fall, citing security concerns). The AAUP censured UNL’s administration in 2018 for its handling of Lawton’s case.

The administration’s earlier waffling response to political pressure was surely part of the calculation made this past fall by Reyn Archer, chief of staff to US Representative Jeff Fortenberry (NE-1), when he contacted the chancellor, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and the chair of the political science department to complain about Ari Kohen, an associate professor of political science at UNL. Kohen was among the dozens of individuals who had “liked” a photo of a vandalized Fortenberry campaign sign—with added googly eyes and the name changed to “Fartenberry”—on Facebook. In the course of Kohen’s subsequent conversation with Archer, which Kohen recorded, the chief of staff appears to threaten Kohen with the kind of targeted online harassment described above. In this case, fortunately, the university declined to respond to the pressure, and Kohen’s recording of his conversation with Archer made national news.

In its 2017 statement Targeted Online Harassment of Faculty, the AAUP condemned TPUSA’s Professor Watchlist, recommended that institutions develop policies forbidding the surreptitious recording of classroom discussions and advising meetings, and urged “administrations, governing boards, and faculties, individually and collectively, to speak out clearly and forcefully to defend academic freedom and to condemn targeted harassment and intimidation of faculty members.” Many administrators have in fact opted to speak out forcefully in favor of free speech and academic freedom, but they usually stop short of condemning the harassment and intimidation of faculty members and campus communities. American University professor Carolyn Gallagher, in her article “War on the Ivory Tower,” reviewed recent administrative responses to harassment and categorized them as “robust,” “weak,” or “muddled”; the majority of responses, she found, fell into the final category, in which “administrators offer a tepid defense of academic freedom, [and] grant due process, but only late in the game, or give different ex­planations to public and pri­vate audiences.” However, it is worth noting that even the robust response—wherein “a school de­fends the attacked professor’s academic freedom, offers due process if disciplin­ary action is being considered, and com­municates the reasons for its decision to the professor and the wider public”—ignores the AAUP’s call to condemn the attacks and has usually been viewed as insufficient by the faculty member under attack. Targeted faculty members, some of whom have been attacked precisely for doing their jobs—publishing in their field or teaching its most up-to-date methodology and content—have called on campus leaders to go beyond merely defending their legal right to speak.

That the faculty who have been attacked are disproportionately people of color, women, and those whose work treats race or gender is not a coincidence. US colleges and universities have made concerted efforts in recent decades to diversify the faculty ranks. Institutional commitments to diversity—which, to be clear, are often lofty ideals unsupported by practice—have caused significant and legitimate tension. The complex debates over campus speech codes and punishments for hate speech, and over procedures and evidentiary standards in cases of sexual harassment and assault, are symptomatic of the conflict that exists between the university’s educational mission and its commitments to free speech.

On the one hand, colleges and universities have an interest in making speech protections as robust as possible. Academic freedom demands that faculty members must be able to explore even ideas that many find objectionable. Making rules against some ideas or forms of speech or punishing those who articulate objectionable ideas stifles or chills the academic environment and thus stunts a university’s ability to fulfill its research and teaching mission. On the other hand, as an educational institution, a university has the responsibility to create and maintain a learning environment in which all students can engage fully in their classes and in university life. Minority populations of all kinds are the most likely to be targeted for harassment or hate speech and therefore demand more robust protections in order to maintain a healthy learning environment. The question is how robustly to defend academic freedom while also maintaining an inclusive learning and working environment, particularly when female faculty and faculty of color are attacked.

At UNL, the groups that led the attack were hostile not just to Courtney Lawton or to her home department of English but to the very idea of such an inclusive learning environment. The events of August 25, 2017, and their ongoing aftermath are precisely about what kind of higher education we want. When administrators respond to such attacks, they have a responsibility to protect both the right to free inquiry—inquiry free from political interference of any kind—and the right of all members of the educational community to an environment that allows them fully to participate in such inquiry. They should not cave in to demands from politicians and donors or make decisions on the basis of concerns about institutional reputation, for to do so is to create an institution where utilitarianism trumps intellectualism. An institution of higher learning—beginning at the top—must have the courage to speak out against organizations that seek to undermine the basic values of academic freedom and an inclusive learning environment.

That is not to say that organizations such as TPUSA should be denied the right to speak. However, if an organization is predicated on hostility to the very foundations of higher education, then we must not be afraid to state that we do not agree with its views. After all, there is a fundamental difference between speech acts that are predicated on the desire to foster openness to others and those that are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, fascist, or intolerant of religious difference and whose clearly intended goal is to foreclose discussion and inquiry. The relationship between these two kinds of speech acts is asymmetrical. It is our job, as educators and scholars, to stress that the difference between the two is in fact a crucial distinction. The best way to do this is by relentlessly rendering this difference visible—not by presenting the positions as equally valid expressions of different “sides” of a debate. The administrators of higher education institutions, which would not exist without students and educators, must do so as well.

The best way to prepare students to negotiate the complexities of life after college is not by promoting a utilitarian vision of higher education but by enhancing their capacity to respond: to be affected by and to affect the world in which they live. Instead of closing ourselves off from myriad encounters with other people and their different experiences, traditions, attitudes, ways of being, and knowledge, we should foster our imaginative reasoning faculties in order to open ourselves to that which is unknown, or at least less known, to us.

Crucially, however, such an ethical and political stance—we might call it “radical hospitality”—does not mean that such openness is or has to be unconditional. In other words, the welcoming of an other (a stranger, a foreigner), which necessarily involves the element of surprise that is constitutive of initial contact with the unknown, needs not be absolute. Indeed, as French philosopher Jacques Derrida compellingly argued, in every act of hospitality resides an element of necessary exclusion that results from the host’s exercise of sovereignty over his or her home. Hosting is a gesture that has to be made actively: we have to offer to host someone, whether for a minute or forever. We also have to be able, however, to deny someone entry to our home: in order to extend hospitality to others, we must be able to say no to a request, or demand, to enter our home. This ability to exclude is the constitutive possibility of hosting, of inclusiveness.

The same principle of hospitality explains why we should not give in to the rhetoric of “both-sidesism.” As members of an institution of higher education, it decidedly is our business to challenge, and to invite the challenging, of every dogma, especially dogma that forecloses hospitality—actions and speech acts that are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, fascist, or intolerant of religious difference.

No institution of higher education, of course, should prevent any of its members from speaking freely. But it is only the ideology of both-sidesism that believes it is not acceptable to push back against speech acts that in their dispositions are designed to exclude others. If colleges and universities themselves are not able to state definitively that they are committed not only to First Amendment principles and academic freedom but also to the defense of higher education as a space of inquiry and debate predicated on radical hospitality, they will remain unable to defend themselves and, however unwittingly, will participate in their own undoing. In this instance, only one side is correct, and we must insist that any speech act that is designed to undermine the foundational principles of higher education is not welcome. This, in turn, means that presidents, chancellors, deans, and chairs must exercise the right of the host to counterspeech.

Last year, UNL failed to affirm that this dispositional difference matters and, consequently, failed to embrace the principle of radical hospitality. As a result, many teachers in the English department—especially our graduate students and lecturers, who often face the most challenging pedagogical situations while simultaneously enjoying the least protection—have gone about their business with anxiety and even fear for the last several semesters. To their credit, they kept going—and have done a wonderful job. The fact that our department has a strong mission statement may have helped them to do so. This mission statement—we call it “An Education in Imaginative Reasoning”—articulates a lucid framework for our work and thereby offers intellectual protection for our instructors when they dare to raise controversial social or political questions that emerge from the texts they teach. It also serves as the ground on which we are able to defend our colleagues when they are attacked.

For example, our mission statement explicitly declares that the pursuit of social justice and the affirmation of diversity are part of the department’s core values and that each point of view or opinion is not equally valid—there should be no false equivalency between values that differ in kind. In other words, the mission statement defends radical hospitality as a bedrock value that, coupled with our insistence on the principles of academic freedom as defined by AAUP, means that all of our colleagues, no matter their rank, have freedom in the classroom. They are at liberty to explore whatever the course materials themselves offer up for conversation and analysis and, when appropriate, to explain their disagreement with student positions or speech acts, not only but especially when those exhibit an exclusionary disposition.

Academic institutions and units should clearly state in public-facing statements their commitment to the principles of academic freedom and inclusion. They must embrace their position as host and, when confronted with organizations or speech acts that deny or undermine that position, embrace the responsibility of counterspeech that this position implies. When faculty or students are attacked, it is not enough to affirm their right to free speech or academic freedom. We must forcefully speak against the actions and positions of those who would seek to undermine our shared values as educators.

Marco Abel is professor of English and film studies and chair of the Department of English at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. He is the author, most recently, of The Counter-Cinema of the Berlin School. Julia Schleck is associate professor of English at UNL and a member of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance. She is the author of Telling True Tales of Islamic Lands: Forms of Mediation in English Travel Writing, 1575-1630, and is currently working on a book on academic freedom for the series Provocations.