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‘For Here We are Not Afraid’
‘… To Follow Truth Wherever It May Lead’
When founding the University of Virginia in December 1820, the quote in the title is what Thomas Jefferson proclaimed.
Now more than two hundred years later, our universities seem to have forgotten this basic principle. As a result, our society and our democracy are in ever greater danger.
Democracy relies on two basic institutions for the pursuit of truth, knowledge, and understanding; journalism and academia. The first is more immediate and relevant to current affairs, whereas the latter is more in-depth and independent. Both have the potential to lead the way to just and equitable policies and solutions.
In academia, problems are solved through teaching, learning, and specialized research leading to uninhibited, robust, sometimes passionate and sometimes profoundly challenging discussion and debate. Controversial issues may tempt a desire to stifle these investigations, but Jefferson wisely understood that “truth” is not only always what we seek but always what we must follow.
I.F. Stone, sometimes called “the muckracker,” was revered because he knew that honest journalism entailed doing the right thing. He proclaimed: “The purpose of journalism is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”
It does not take a difficult look to see that much is wrong with our “elite” universities as well as at our “mainstream” corporate media. Huge amounts of money have seriously infiltrated and corrupted both. The two main sources are:
Government-connected and funded entities and organizations
Persons of considerable wealth with ties to special interests as well as to the U.S. and foreign governments
Too many universities operate like businesses, with top administrators functioning more as chief executive officers than educators. They have also become linked to profit-driven banks, which facilitate major student loans to pay the university’s bloated tuition and other charges. A university education has become like buying a car or a home, which saddles many with bank interests for years.
Free thinkers in pursuit of “truth” are the greatest threat to monied special interests—be they of the military-industrial complex, mega corporations, political parties, super wealthy individuals, or masked agents of foreign governments—and the first they seek to control.
In my case, Yale, where I spent thirty years of my life, including student years, leads me to these conclusions:
Universities should not be in the business of policing free speech: their responsibility is to encourage it to the utmost.
Universities should not be deciders of “truth”: their responsibility is to ensure a robust atmosphere for its pursuit, through discussion and debate especially of complex and controversial subjects.
Universities should not be arbiters of political or historical matters: their duty is to nurture research and inquiry, so that those who teach and study at their institutions can reach their own conclusions and adjust them to new information and resultant insights.
Jefferson’s full sentence at the University of Virginia was: “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, for here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
I taught at Yale School of Medicine and Law School for seventeen years before I was abruptly terminated, when Alan Dershowitz, with his ties to Donald Trump and major money interests, pressured the University to oust me. Yale complied, even though just two years earlier my department chair had told the entire faculty that he supported my free speech and that I added credit to the University for speaking responsibly. Other chairs of psychiatry, not to mention the most eminent psychiatrists in the country, reached out to me in praise of my raising critical issues. There may have been controversy in the political arena, but there was a consensus in the medical field.
Shockingly for me, in order to prevent a much-needed investigation about the circumstances surrounding my dismissal, the University went so far as to state on the record, to the U.S. Court of Appeals, that it had no obligation to academic freedom.
There are countless others who have had troubling experiences:
Earlier this year, the dean at the Harvard John F. Kennedy School withdrew a fellowship to the distinguished former executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, under great pressure from major contributors. There was tremendous backlash, and Harvard was forced to reinstate Roth.
Last year, Princeton University refused to invite one of the most distinguished emeritus professors, even after he had just been honored as the author of one of the six most important books in international affairs in the last century. Princeton, cowering to major big money groups, refused to invite Richard Falk, despite the clamoring of students and alumni.
Just last week, Brandeis University became the first to totally ban Students for Justice in Palestine, a long-time student organization with hundreds of chapters.
The key question in all of these situations is not whether I, you, or major university money-givers agree with this or that point of view. Rather, as Justice Louis Brandeis himself, who was an ardent supporter of uninhibited and unrestrained free speech, proclaimed, our society must always not just tolerate but champion “more speech, not enforced silence.” To this end, we need transparency about university sources of finances. This commitment, too, has to be uninhibited and not masked, camouflaged, or partial. I will soon build on what I have written earlier with what I will call a “Charter for Learning, Teaching, and the Pursuit of Truth at Universities.”