Statement on Academic Freedom


Sharing this message I sent to the campus community this morning.

Dear friends,

Given recent conversations on campus and the controversies raging around the country concerning free speech, censorship, and the governmental intrusion into higher education, this seems a good moment to say something about academic freedom here at Wesleyan University. First, what does academic freedom mean? A former president of the American Association of University Professors started off this way:

  1. Academic freedom means that both faculty members and students can engage in intellectual debate without fear of censorship or retaliation.
  2. Academic freedom establishes a faculty member’s right to remain true to his or her pedagogical philosophy and intellectual commitments. It preserves the intellectual integrity of our educational system and thus serves the public good.

At Wesleyan, we might add that the intellectual integrity of our community is preserved when any of its members, including staff and students, can remain true to their intellectual commitments and their approach to learning. We trust that remaining true to one’s commitments is combined with remaining open to people with commitments different from one’s own. This is how real learning happens, with “independence of mind and generosity of spirit.”

As we state in the University’s governing documents (faculty handbook and student handbook): “every member of the Wesleyan community should feel that he or she can enter into controversy without fear of being silenced or constrained. This community’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas and pursuit of knowledge requires a wide range of protections for speech and expression, even when noxious or offensive. Belonging to this community, however, carries with it the responsibility of extending respect and openness of mind to others.”

In America today, academic freedom once again needs its defenders—people who know that learning requires freedom from intimidation and censorship while also demanding openness and attentiveness. The combination of qualities that constitute academic freedom may seem idealistic to some, but for us at Wesleyan it is the practical idealism at the heart of liberal education.

Michael S. Roth


4 thoughts on “Statement on Academic Freedom”

  1. Dear Michael,

    I could not be happier to read your note. Indoctrination by the left side of the political agenda at US universities, lack of freedom of speech , cancel culture and intolerance towards oposite views and values, in particular conservative values ( like my own) is rampant, and also sadly, rampant at Wesleyan. I can give you a couple of examples that I know of first hand. I fear that I would be very careful to express my views about many issues in a campus like Wesleyan. However, as every change starts with leadership at the top, this note fills me with hope reassurance and respect towards you. You seem to have recognised this very important issue we face.

    I look forward to discussing more about this when I meet you at the Wesleyan London reception at our home on March 14th. Very much looking forward to meeting you and welcoming you to London.

    And again, thank you for your note in this regard. It is of extreme importance.

    Warmest regards

    Sagra Maceira de Rosen P’23

  2. Dear President Roth,
    Thank you for being an articulate and committed defender of freedom of academic speech, as your February 16, 2023, Statement confirms. My view is that the principal challenge for “practical idealists” trying to address this difficult issue is having safeguards on campus that effectively and in practice prevent anyone from facing “fear”when engaged in intellectual expression (or better yet, of course, creating an environment that incentvises a robust range of intellectual expression). Rhetorical support for freedom of expression is manifestly not sufficient.

    Your statement enumerates a few of the fears prevalent on university campuses: censorship, retaliation or being silenced or constrained. In addition to these listed fears, many other pressures are, and will be, applied to discourage freedom of expression. Shaming, among others, might be singled out. Unfortunately, these fears and pressures are with us and will doubtless be further developed by human ingenuity and perversity.

    I would like to ask if in your judgment these fears that discourage freedom of academic expression are currently being as effectively addressed as they could be on the Wesleyan University campus? One widely noted initiative on freedom of academic expression and supported by 97 universities and colleges is the statement called the “Chicago Principles.” What considerations led Wesleyan University not to sign this statement?

    With appreciation for your continuing personal efforts on this issue, Wolf Brueckmann, ‘65

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