Letter to the Editor: CMU's core values diminished by Jahanian for refusing to respond to students

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

On Nov. 12, President Jahanian, Dean of Students Gina Casalegno, and Provost James Garrett received a letter signed by hundreds of Carnegie Mellon students and student organizations regarding Institute of Politics and Strategy (IPS) Senior Fellow Richard Grenell. In the letter, students reminded Jahanian of his Aug. 20 communication regarding Richard Grenell, in which he stated that Grenell would be held to typical university ethics standards during his appointment. In their Nov. 12 letter, the students amply documented statements and actions by Grenell since his appointment that seemed to challenge or even to violate those standards. In concluding their letter, the students clearly and directly called upon Jahanian to honor his previous statement, and to clarify and defend university ethical and academic standards, asking: “Do you consider these actions and statements to be in concert with our university values and ethics?”

Jahanian’s Nov. 18 response, while thanking students for what he calls their “passion,” seems not to have recognized the reasoning behind their letter. He redirected away from questions about the university and its standards, and away from Carnegie Mellon's publicly stated commitment to defend those standards in this matter. Instead, he responded with an impassioned statement on the freedom of speech, in which he referenced the First Amendment (which, it should be remembered, protects against government infringement on the exercise of religion, public assembly, and the freedom of speech). Carnegie Mellon's own “Code of Business Ethics and Conduct” (“Code”) was mentioned only once, late in Jahanian’s statement, and only in the context of a generic expectation that that code would be upheld, without any consideration of whether specific actions or statements by Grenell might have violated the letter or spirit of that code.

Let’s imagine a different approach to this difficult issue, focused on a single one of the many episodes documented in the students’ Nov. 12 letter (I do not address here, for instance, Grenell’s anti-Chinese statements, which are also worthy of consideration). On Nov. 2, the day before the presidential election, Grenell recirculated over Twitter a photograph of a maskless Joe Biden from a pre-pandemic (Nov. 2019) issue of Vogue magazine—though with caption and date information removed. Grenell offered the photograph as evidence of Biden’s hypocrisy on the issue of mask-wearing and public health. One day before the election, this tweet went out to Grenell’s more than 600,000 followers, and was re-forwarded tens of thousands of times thereafter, including by one talk radio host with several million followers. As voters — including those who had read the deceptive tweet — prepared to go to the polls, Grenell was contacted by multiple correspondents about this error. Initially, he responded not by correcting or admitting his action, but by attacking those who pointed it out. Eventually, he removed the post from his Twitter account, but presumably only once its benefit, in the context of the Nov. 3 election, was realized, and in any case without ever publicly acknowledging his misuse of the photograph in question.

It is patently evident that Grenell’s action constitutes lying. But it was worse than just a lie; it also involved the deliberate falsification and circulation of a document in the public record. As such, this action is egregious, particularly when considered in the context of an academic community that is fundamentally committed to the proper discovery, use, and dissemination of evidence. A situation somewhat like this one is anticipated in the very opening lines of Carnegie Mellon's Code, which expresses an expectation that all members of the university community — whether faculty, staff or students — engage in the “responsible conduct of research,” and prohibits those members from “engaging in research misconduct, including fabrication, falsification or plagiarism in proposing, performing or reviewing research, or in reporting research results.”

Of course, Grenell’s tweets do not qualify as academic research. It is worth noting, though, that the Code uses the term “research” rather than “academic research,” inviting broader application. In general usage, the term “research” refers to a finding of fact for purposes of dissemination, particularly when such findings are produced by someone with specific training that lends their findings weight in the public realm. In Grenell’s case, his background as a former director of national intelligence is certainly relevant. Considered in these terms the Nov. 2 tweet — more than just a lie — also might be considered akin to a research violation, as an expert’s act of “fabrication” or “falsification” in the finding of facts and in their “reporting” in the public realm.

To be clear: I am not making the argument that Grenell should be subject to punitive action under the Code, of the kind that might be called for in the context of the falsification of academic research results. What I am proposing is that a consideration of Grenell’s action in terms of the Code could have provided an opportunity to identify the ways his action may have violated the spirit of the Code and the standards of an academic community. It could have provided an opportunity to reflect on the core ideals of our community, and about the continued importance of evidence, ethics, and truth for the university, even in a time of “post-truth” and “alternative facts” in public discourse. But Jahanian did not take those opportunities to clarify the values and standards of Carnegie Mellon as an academic community. Instead, he delivered a statement to students about the importance of free speech: something of which, I imagine, they were already keenly aware.

I wish that Jahanian’s statement had addressed centrally the Code and Carnegie Mellon’s academic and community standards and values in his Nov. 18 statement. I worry that in failing to stand up for our community’s particular commitment to ethics and truth, those values start to seem like domain-specific concerns — about the proper procedures or methods to follow in footnoting sources or reporting the results of laboratory experiments, rather than all-encompassing concerns about who we are, and who we can or should be, as members of a university community.

I care deeply about free speech, and I am a staunch defender of its importance both at Carnegie Mellon and in society. I agree with, and indeed take as given, much that Jahanian says in his statement about the importance of free speech. But I fear that in his Nov. 18 statement, Jahanian has turned away from students’ very direct and very important queries about the core ethical values of our university, and in so doing has left those values diminished.

Paul Eiss
Associate Professor of History