Eliot Circular

Academic Freedom in a Learning Community

Photo by Christopher Onstott.

Editor's Note

In March, a Reed student named Jeremiah True ’16 launched a public campaign to get himself reinstated into his freshman humanities conference after Prof. Pancho Savery had excluded him for disruptive behavior. Jeremiah contended that he had been excluded for questioning the commonly cited (but controversial) statistic that one in five female college students is sexually assaulted in U.S. colleges. Prof. Savery, a noted free speech advocate, said he banned Jeremiah from the conference because of a pattern of disruption, but offered to hold private sessions with Jeremiah (which Jeremiah declined). Jeremiah has since withdrawn from the college, but the episode prompted Prof. Nigel Nicholson, the dean of the faculty, to reflect on academic freedom.

Dear Reed community, 

Most of you are aware that a situation involving one of our students prompted a heated debate on campus before spring break. The discourse has precipitated public attention from obscure social media sites as well as the mainstream media, and the situation has continued to evolve on campus. 

In accordance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), Reed cannot comment on disciplinary actions regarding students. We respect and support the goals of FERPA; it is especially important that we seek to preserve the privacy of students in such situations.

I will, however, take this opportunity to reflect upon Reed’s commitment both to academic freedom and to creating and maintaining a productive learning community. 

Reed’s mission statement commits us to being “an institution of higher education in the liberal arts devoted to the intrinsic value of intellectual pursuit and governed by the highest standards of scholarly practice, critical thought, and creativity,” and the college’s stated operating principles rightly note that Reed’s educational mission “requires the freest exchange and most open discussion of ideas.” A motion approved by the community senate, faculty and board of trustees in 1969, and reaffirmed by the faculty in 1986, states that dissent is “fundamental” to Reed’s “life as an academic community,” and pledges that “the exercise of the right of dissent is not something to be grudgingly tolerated, but actively encouraged.” Such principles continue and must continue to be central to our practice.

At the same time, dissent and the exchange of ideas must adhere to certain standards of conduct. Immediately after noting that our educational mission “requires the freest exchange and most open discussion of ideas,” the operating principles note that “the use of censorship or intimidation is intolerable” in a community dedicated to such exchange. The same 1969 motion declares that dissent is encouraged “as long as neither force nor the credible threat of force is used, and so long as the orderly processes of the College are not deliberately obstructed.” But, perhaps most pertinently, the Honor Principle demands that members of the community treat each other with respect and honor the right of others to hold, express and defend their ideas even as one holds, expresses and defends one’s own; it enjoins upon us all a respect for, and a responsibility to maintain and generate, a productive learning environment for all members of the community.

It is, then, incumbent on us all to recognize that the free exchange of ideas is indeed an exchange. One can express one’s own ideas in such a way that one prevents others from expressing their ideas, and such expression undermines the free exchange upon which education depends. We bear the responsibility, and must learn to bear the responsibility, to listen as well as to speak, to foster dialogue as well as to express our own opinions.

Equally, we bear the responsibility to listen respectfully to and engage with ideas that we may dislike or find offensive. Reed seeks to make its campus safe from physical violence and threats of physical violence. That said, while it may seek to support students as they address ideas, it does not seek to protect them from those ideas, even if they are upsetting or discomforting. What makes us uncomfortable does not automatically render us unsafe, and there is a tremendous onus upon us to labor to distinguish between what makes us uncomfortable and what makes us unsafe. 

Finally, we all bear the responsibility of helping each other find ways to create a productive dialogue. The Honor Principle enjoins us to engage with those of us who may seem to us to be violating its spirit, and to find a way forward that is appropriate for such a community before resorting to judicial processes. We are a learning community and have the responsibility to help each other learn.

Nigel Nicholson
Dean of the Faculty
Walter Mintz Professor of Classics