The Freedom to Teach and to Learn

Controversy over Professor Lawrence Rosen’s use of the n-word in his class, since cancelled, has roiled Princeton’s campus and attracted national media attention. The facts of the case are by this point well known: Rosen, teaching his long-standing “Cultural Freedoms: Hate Speech, Blasphemy, and Pornography” class, repeatedly said the n-word as an example, even after initial requests to stop. The situation escalated, with students walking out of the class and confronting Rosen. A few days later, Rosen decided to cancel his class due to death threats and increased furor, although both President Eisgruber and the Head of the Anthropology Department, Professor Carolyn Rouse, had voiced their support for his academic freedom.

The Board commends Eisgruber’s and Rouse’s responses and their clear distinction between the (possibly profound) offensiveness of Rosen’s actions and his academic freedom. But the ultimate cancellation of the class sets a dangerous precedent—public pressure and threats neither ought to preclude a professor’s academic freedom nor overwhelm valuable opportunities for open public discourse.

We emphasize that we are not addressing Rosen’s use of the n-word itself, or seeking to minimize any deeply held reactions to the episode. Additionally, none of the Board was present in the class in question, so our opinion is solely based on second-hand reports.

However, as Rouse and Eisgruber argued, Rosen should have been able to continue to teach his class. Rosen is a distinguished professor who has taught this class for over a decade without incident. While this does not give him a free pass to conduct his class in all ways, it does mean that his pedagogical decisions, even if controversial, should be trusted. As Eisgruber argued, it is crucial “to have academic freedom that allows people to have pedagogical choices on how to teach difficult subjects” in order to have fruitful inquiry and discussion.

Rouse made a further point: Rosen’s class takes place over an entire semester. By “not trusting the process,” students were deprived of the ability “to argue why hate speech should or should not be protected.” It should be noted that Rouse is hardly a paradigmatic defender of free speech, to put it mildly. She led the walk-out protest of Charles Murray, and gave a lecture this fall entitled “F%*# Free Speech.” Her admirable willingness to defend Rosen shows just how central and crucial academic freedom for pedagogical decisions and subject matter is to the idea of a university.

Far from being an empty catchphrase, the Board emphasizes that academic freedom allows many classes that contain potentially offensive material to proceed. In Professor Peter Singer’s class, for instance, he presents arguments for infanticide—an act which could well provoke a visceral reaction in some students. We need not equate or even compare this example with Rosen’s use of the n-word. Both of them have the potential to offend, as do the subjects of many other class discussions. Public pressure to cancel a class because of such material sets a dangerous precedent.

Instead of instinctively shouting down debate because of offense or disagreement with pedagogical methods, a more beneficial response would have been to engage with the heated discussion, as Rouse and Eisgruber note. In fact, before Rosen felt forced to cancel the class, such a productive debate raged. Opinion piece after opinion piece appeared in the Daily Princetonian; these took various sides of the issue, but opinions were aired out civilly and logically. But pressuring Rosen to cancel his class attempts to stifle all further discussion.

Given the increased national attention to issues of race, and indeed the sudden campus attention that the controversy garnered, an open discourse on Rosen’s use of the n-word was productive and beneficial. Rosen’s class could have accomplished this, both in the confines of the classroom and outside of it. As Rouse pointed out in her letter, there are many current hot-button issues that revolve around the concept of hate speech or taboo. Had the class been allowed to continue, its aim would have been to arm students with arguments “other than ‘because it made me feel bad,’” in Rouse’s words.

The Board has emphasized the importance of academic freedom and free speech again and again. Far from being abstract concepts, here we see an instance in which the instinct to censor and dismiss offensive content has directly resulted in the stifling of discourse on a matter important to the campus. Whatever your views on Rosen’s actions, his receiving death threats and consequently feeling forced to cancel his class is nothing to be celebrated.