Georgetown's Thuggish Illiberalism
The Dean of the Georgetown University Law Center: a bully and an enemy of the academic enterprise
In a particularly unlovely instance of self-regarding illiberalism, Georgetown University Law Center’s Dean William Treanor has condemned and suspended the incoming Executive Director and Senior Lecturer in the Center for the Constitution at GULC, Ilya Shapiro. Shapiro’s transgression? A series of contentious but intellectually defensible tweets regarding President Joe Biden’s pledge to appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court. (One of those tweets was clumsily worded; Mr. Shapiro apologized and tweeted an elaboration, clarifying his position.) Treanor’s bullying statement and actions plainly violate the principle of academic freedom, which protects what the American Association of University Professors terms “extramural utterances.” As the AAUP avows, when professors “speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” Elaborating on this idea, the AAUP stresses that “the controlling principle is that a faculty member’s expression of opinion as a citizen cannot constitute grounds for dismissal unless it clearly demonstrates the faculty member’s unfitness for the position.” As a matter of contract, Georgetown embraces these principles in its Faculty Handbook, and the Handbook grants to all members of the faculty the “rights and responsibilities common to all citizens, free from institutional censorship” and abjures any effort by the university to hold a faculty member “accountable” for “private acts” unless those acts “substantially affect teaching, research or University service.”
So Dean Treanor has almost certainly breached Mr. Shapiro’s terms of employment, as well as the principle of academic freedom. The progressive civil libertarian Nadine Strossen, the Academic Freedom Alliance, and the 173 university professors assembled by the First Amendment scholar Eugene Volokh have eloquently condemned Dean Treanor’s actions. We have nothing to add, save to note that, in addition to revealing himself as something of a thug, Dean Treanor has also shown himself to be at best ignorant of, and at worst inimical to, the intellectual and scholarly enterprise that is academe.
The purpose of academic freedom is to promote the unfettered pursuit and transmittal of argument, ideas, and knowledge. In its founding document in 1915—on the eve of the still unmatched suppression of free thought in the academy that accompanied America’s entry into the First World War and the first Red Scare—the AAUP defined as one of the three elements of academic freedom the obligation of academic institutions to protect scholars’ “freedom of extramural utterance and action.” From that time through the anti-left wing witch hunts of the late 1940s and 1950s, continuing through the Vietnam era to now, the greatest threats to academic freedom have arisen precisely from that impulse to bar scholars from the academy and from academic discourse because some or most have found their extramural opinions abhorrent. Robert Maynard Hutchins, widely considered the greatest university president of the last century, defined the only way academic freedom can be defended in the face of that threat—and Dean Treanor has much to learn about the responsibilities of academic leadership from Hutchins’s uncompromising injunction:
The only question that can be properly raised about a professor . . . is his competence in his field. His private life, his political views, his social attitudes, his economic doctrine, these are not the concern of his university; still less are they the concern of the public. I have no patience with the philosophy of “Yes, but” as applied to this matter. Any position short of the one I have stated will be found to involve such compromises that nothing is left of academic freedom.
By succumbing to the temptation to punish Mr. Shapiro for publishing his ideas—in fact, by leading the charge against Shapiro—Dean Treanor has subverted the very principles that it is his duty to uphold.