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.

Praise and Recommendations for Princeton Calendar Reform

Last month, the University’s Ad Hoc Committee on Calendar Reform released a final survey to gather student opinions on proposed calendar reforms, most notably a plan to move fall exams before winter break. Additional calendar reforms include advancing the beginning of fall classes to the first week of September; creating a two-week non-credit Wintersession in January; moving spring semester up by one week; and implementing a seven-day final exam period in both semesters. The Board generally praises the proposed reformsparticularly highlighting the benefits of taking final exams before winter breakand further suggests that classes begin in the last week of August and that Wintersession be shortened to 1 week, thus allowing a two-week final exam period in both semesters.

Moving final exams to before winter break will allow more symmetry between semesters, increase academic fairness, and improve student’s mental health. Currently, Princeton’s fall semester takes place over a longer span of time than its spring semester. Additionally, fall semester breaks are more frequent and lengthy than spring semester breaks. Certain courses are taught both fall and spring semester, and some students may elect to take a course in the fall because of the additional study time. Freshman writing seminars and Woodrow Wilson School junior year task forces are assigned randomly to the fall or spring semester, and are examples of random disparities in student’s current academic experiences. Reforming the calendar would alleviate these problems, creating parity between the semesters and eliminating imbalances in course difficulty across terms. In addition, all students currently face anxiety over winter break due to the anticipation of January finals. Moving finals to before winter break would diminish this stressed period, and improve overall student mental health.

In addition to ensuring academic fairness and improving student mental health, moving finals before winter break would have several social benefits. In November and December, students are often less engaged  in their classwork because they expect to study over winter break and January. Further, students, particularly freshmen, often find their fall semester socially disruptive due to the amount of time on and off campus. A reformed calendar would allow for increased student engagement in precepts towards the end of the fall semester, and for the formation of richer friendships. In addition, Princeton’s current calendar makes it challenging for students to study abroad in the spring at universities that begin in January.

Beyond a revised final exam schedule, the proposed calendar offers many other improvements. The non-credit Wintersession gives the opportunity for interested students to learn supplemental material. Popular suggestions have already been made for short workshops in R, Python, or digital media. Further, Princeton’s new calendar would align it closer to most other American universities. While on break, students are often unable to see high school friends due to differently timed schedules. Reforming the calendar would move up each semester by one week, allowing students to maintain old friendships, and possibly travel together for spring break.

We propose one alteration to the current calendar: moving the start date of the academic calendar to the last week of August instead of early September. The proposed calendar only allows one week for final exams, thus diminishing study time for students and increasing student stress. In addition to shortening winter break to four weeks, our proposal would allow both first and second semester to continue with a much-needed two-week final exam period.

The Board, in agreement with student public opinion on the topic, recognizes the need for calendar reform and is glad to see the Ad Hoc Committee’s recommendations. Moving finals before winter break, creating a Wintersession, and starting the academic calendar of both semesters one week earlier are important changes with the potential to improve future Princeton students’ experiences. In addition, we propose that moving the start of classes to the end of August and making winter break four weeks rather than five would allow the University to maintain the current two-week-long final exams period, and ease student stress. The Board looks forward to seeing the definitive submission of the Ad Hoc Committee’s proposal to the Faculty Advisory Board in March, and hopes to see Princeton students benefit in years to come.

Join the Princeton Editorial Board

Last September, 12 undergraduate students, representing the majority of the members of the dissolved Daily Princetonian Editorial Board, founded a new campus organization called the Princeton Editorial Board. Since then, the Board has added three new members to our ranks and met biweekly to discuss and write joint opinion pieces about campus affairs, ranging from Lawnparties to language courses to study abroad. We weighed in on campus controversies including the Honor Code referenda, Tzipi Hotovely’s lecture, and the University’s handling of the Professor Verdú sexual misconduct case. We also interviewed in person all three candidates for USG President and endorsed current President Rachel Yee.

We determined our stances for each of these editorials through rigorous and thoughtful debate at our biweekly meetings. The Board prides itself on including students representing a broad cross-section of campus experiences and opinions. Our members include liberals and conservatives; engineers and humanities majors; athletes, debaters and singers; bicker club members, sign-in club members, and independent students; and students from all four class years. The diversity of opinions and campus experiences among our members is crucial to informing our discussions. To that end, we seek applications for new members from undergraduates of any background who are passionate about writing, open discourse, and contributing to campus dialogue. In this editorial, we will briefly explain how the Board functions on a regular basis as well as discuss the application process.

The Princeton Editorial Board meets twice a week to decide the topic of our next editorial. Members propose topics related to current campus controversies or ongoing areas for improvement at the University, so it is important that members stay informed about campus events and University policy. Once a majority of the Board agrees we are interested in writing about a particular topic, we debate it thoroughly to recommend solutions for policy issues or to articulate a stance on a controversial issue. While the Board strives to reach unanimous agreement for each of our editorials, members who disagree with a particular editorial are able to write a dissent that appears below the majority opinion. This reflects the Board’s strong commitment to open debate and viewpoint diversity. Once the Board decides its stance for an editorial, one member volunteers to be the lead writer for the piece. All members participate in editing and revising each editorial using Google Docs. Accordingly, strong writing and editing skills are a must for Board members. Completed editorials are published biweekly on our website and Facebook page.  

The process for joining the Board enables applicants to showcase their abilities to generate interesting editorial ideas and to communicate their views in-person and through writing. The written application may be found here; it is due via email to the Board’s Chair, Cole Campbell, at [email protected] by 11:59pm on Wednesday, February 21. Applicants will also interview with the Board’s current members. As always, the Board will evaluate the quality of applications on the basis of how well applicants argue ideas, not the conclusions they reach. We encourage you to reach out to any of our current members if you have any questions and look forward to reading your application!