EdBoard: Regarding academic freedom at Carnegie Mellon

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

On the morning of Thursday, Sept. 8, news broke on Twitter that Queen Elizabeth II was on her deathbed. Dr Uju Anya, a faculty member in the Department of Modern Languages at Carnegie Mellon, tweeted the following message to her thousands of followers: “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating.” The tweet went viral and led to controversy on Twitter. Anya followed up the tweet by explaining that her family were survivors of the Biafran genocide in which Britain was a crucial actor. It was quote-tweeted by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, which led the tweet to reach even more people: “This is someone supposedly working to make the world better? I don’t think so. Wow.” Hours later, Carnegie Mellon posted a message on Twitter saying, “We do not condone the offensive and objectionable messages posted by Uju Anya today on her personal social media account. Free expression is core to the mission of higher education, however, the views she shared absolutely do not represent the values of the institution, nor the standards of discourse we seek to foster.”

“Academic freedom” is perhaps one of the most discussed terms in the Carnegie Mellon community in recent years. In an email announcing the launch of the Commission on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression in December 2020, President Jahanian explained, “academic freedom catalyzed the knowledge creation enterprise, protecting faculty and other community members from retribution for exploring the limits of human understanding through research, teaching and service.” The discourse surrounding academic freedom and free speech in higher education is perennial, but starting in 2020, after the controversial Trump-era former Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell was appointed as a senior fellow at the Institute of Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon, it reached a fever-pitch.

Grenell was particularly vocal about his anti-mask beliefs at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak and Carnegie Mellon itself was enforcing strict masking and social distancing rules for those on campus. Of course, he also couldn’t resist branding the COVID-19 virus as the “Chinese Virus”, using the racist and xenophobic dogwhistle in a tweet. Grenell’s Twitter was overall a source of controversery where he spread misinformation about the 2020 election and had a history of engaging in anti-semitic rhetoric.

It was not as if there wasn’t any pushback about his appointment and his subsequent behavior from the community - several faculty members and students signed letters and petitions, held discussions with members of the university administration. Once again — just for the emphasis — all of Grenell’s activities and statements, including the hate speech and election misinformation, were on his Twitter page for anyone to see. Not unsurprisingly, they did drum up multiple storms of controversies online during his one year as senior fellow. Still, Carnegie Mellon defended his appointment on grounds of intellectual diversity and academic freedom. When Grenell’s activities directly endangered the very cornerstone of American democracy — integrity of elections — Carnegie Mellon came out to defend his right to free speech.

In a letter addressed to the community in November 2020, President Jahanian wrote: “the times when the nature of our debate is most controversial is precisely when our defense of free speech is most needed”, “I believe that the long-term reputational damage to CMU is potentially far greater if we are perceived as an institution of higher learning that is intolerant of other viewpoints”, and “I still maintain that, in order to protect the free and open society we all cherish, we must lean into our democratic values to respond to these tensions — as uncomfortable as that sometimes feels. Healing the divisiveness that is the root cause of these issues requires building bridges to others, not putting up barriers or excluding people.”

These are powerful words indeed, capturing a sentiment that is crucial to furthering academic growth and fostering a spirit of intellectual courage. Academic freedom at Carnegie Mellon has been a cornerstone in the success of this institution. It has enabled us to debate and ideate - it has given thousands of students, faculty, staff and alumni the courage to think differently and put in the hard work to solve some of the world's most pressing problems. Faculty members should be empowered by the administration, and students should be empowered by faculty and the administration, to speak up and engage in a healthy discourse to develop ideas that make our world a better place to live in.

However, the statement put out in social media by the Carnegie Mellon Media Relations team on Dr Uju Anya’s tweet falls very short of the ideals noted in President Jahanian’s original defense of academic freedom. Especially when considering that Carnegie Mellon was fully committed to weathering out the storm that was Grenell’s time as senior fellow when he was doing his best in attempting to undermine American democracy while offering a whimper of a condemnation, there is no justification for the cowardly statement put out by media relations that simply notes “free expression is core to the mission of higher education” while going on to offer condemnation by explicitly distancing the institution from Dr. Anya’s opinion. Her statements were her personal opinions and may have been distasteful to some, but her subsequent tweet still offers more context on a personal level and a scholarly understanding to Queen Elizabeth’s less discussed legacy as head of a colonial empire in the 1960s.

Contrastly, Carnegie Mellon did not hesitate in giving out the following statement when Grenell was actively tweeting and giving interviews spreading misinformation about election fraud: “Like all members of our faculty and staff, Mr. Grenell is free to engage in political activity on his own time. Carnegie Mellon does not engage in partisan political activities and has no further comment.” It is both hypocritical and disingenuous that while academic freedom, free expression, and intellectual diversity were excuses to give Grenell the benefit of the doubt in actions and statements that caused tangible harm, all context was separated from Dr. Anya’s statements and the University did not even come up with a whimper of the magnitude of defense offered to Grenell.

The fact that the statement came out after one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, Jeff Bezos (a man who has gotten to his position on the back of rampant exploitation), criticized Dr. Anya in a tweet is concerning. While Amazon has donated millions of dollars to the university when he was CEO of the company, she has vocally and publicly supported the unionization efforts of Amazon workers in recent tweets. It’s frustrating that the administration often took several days or weeks to respond to tireless advocacy from the community on the Grenell issue, but took mere hours to craft and push out this statement after Bezos’ tweet. Perhaps the motive wasn’t only to reassure donors like Bezos and was instead to placate the growing mob, but still the statement’s lack of reinforcing the importance of academic freedom among other issues is a poignant example of a short-term decision that compromises supposedly deep-rooted, foundational values.

That there has been an outpouring of support to Dr. Anya from within the Carnegie Mellon community is a testament to our strength of commitment to free expression. It is not enough to form committees and host speaker series on this issue. We deserve to see concrete actions that communicate to those at Carnegie Mellon that this institution will stand by to support its scholars and their rights respectively.

Commitment to academic freedom and intellectual diversity cannot be half-hearted and withdrawn when convenient. There are many scholars in this university engaged in studies that are highly contentious as they challenge longstanding systems and thought-processes. Carnegie Mellon needs to show that it is committed to supporting such scholars who will inevitably face backlash from those who benefit from such systems or are uncomfortable with change. There are people in this university whose lives and experiences diverge from their association to this institution and actively inform their valuable work — these experiences may carry deep pain and generational trauma, especially for those from marginalized communities around the world. Paulo Freire highlights the personal and political nature of education in his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by writing, “There's no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.” Academic freedom should be used to protect the voices of those who were long marginalized and are making strides in academia to provide their much-needed perspectives.