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SBS Senior Associate Dean Jennifer Lundquist Discusses Academic Freedom at Brown University Faculty Affairs Network Conference

Jennifer Lundquist
Jennifer Lundquist

Jennifer Lundquist, senior associate dean of research and faculty development in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and professor of sociology, recently delivered the keynote talk at the Faculty Affairs Network Conference at Brown University on April 5, exploring the history of academic freedom and the myriad of challenges it faces today.

In her lecture, “Academic Freedom in Uncertain Times,” Lundquist offered a bird’s-eye view of how digital media and various activist watchdog groups surveil the teaching and scholarship of higher education to politicize topics, such as equity and inclusion programming and “divisive concepts” (e.g. gender, race, sexualities, reproductive freedom) and politicized topics, such as public health policy and climate change, to undermine society’s support for public education. She painted a landscape in which a highly organized and well-funded right-wing media ecosphere allies with conservative activists (and sometimes liberal billionaire alumni donors) in the strategic “weaponization” of public records requests of state schools and the increasing public deployment of universities’ mechanisms for research-misconduct investigations. She also discussed the role of government in relation to congressional investigations that are then strategically leaked to the public and the rise of legislation compelling states to censor, defund, and fire scholars and staff carrying out work with which the activists disagree.

Lundquist observed that these external dynamics have tended to involve the political right and the academic left. However, she noted there has also been a less organized but significant erosion of academic freedom in conflicts playing out internally between academics on the left and academics on the radical left, as well as between students and professors. Lundquist argued that conservative activists have seized on extreme cases of internal conflict and overreach to justify and legitimize their own deeply consequential attacks on students’ access to open education, free speech and academic freedom. 

She urged academics to be aware of how inner conflicts are being used to shape the external narrative against higher education and faculty self-governance. Lundquist provided advice on how faculty can anticipate and protect themselves from related media storms and trolling attacks based on her development of UMass’ Responding to Harassment toolkit, which has been widely adopted by other universities across the U.S. and Canada. 

Lundquist showcased strategies through which universities can be more proactive than reactive by preventing the weaponization of their systems by bad-faith actors, through intentional coalition building across universities and K-12 education systems, and she discussed legal strategies to test the constitutionality of recent legislative actions. Finally, she discussed the important role that students can play in resisting trends that threaten their educational opportunities, from organizing in protest to university boycotts. 

Though some believe that it is a fraught time to be a scholar, Lundquist noted that there are historical parallels in the evolution of academic freedom that can be drawn upon for helpful insight into today’s conflicts. She urged institutions to work together and to be proactive in preparing for a robust response to external and internal threats to free speech, academic freedom and faculty self-governance.