Aug. 24, 2020
Dear CU Boulder faculty,
Professor John Eastman, one of our visiting scholars in conservative thought and policy, recently published an op-ed that questioned whether Senator Kamala Harris is eligible to serve as vice president, even though she was born in the United States. This op-ed has both served as a lightning rod nationally for those who wish to delegitimize Senator Harris’s candidacy and has inflamed tensions on a campus that is confronting how it must acknowledge and overcome racism. Many scholars in our community and beyond have criticized the op-ed’s substance as promoting a rejected constitutional theory, and many within our community have reached out to me to express their outrage that a member of our community’s scholarship is being used by others across the country to promote a racist agenda.
I read Professor Eastman’s op-ed, and I found it neither compelling nor consistent with my understanding of who is eligible to hold our highest elected offices. I also condemn the way his work has been used to promote a racist agenda against the historic candidacy of Senator Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican-born father and an Indian-born mother. Never before has a woman of color been a candidate for the vice presidency. Even if he did not intend it, Professor Eastman’s op-ed has marginalized members of our CU Boulder community and sown doubts in our commitment to anti-racism, diversity, equity and inclusion. I am grateful to all who have expressed concerns that his work runs counter to our values as a campus. It undoubtedly damages our efforts to build trust with our communities of color at a critical time when we are working to build a more inclusive campus culture.
Without minimizing those harms, and recognizing that we must repair that trust, I must speak to those who have asked whether I will rescind Professor Eastman’s appointment or silence him. I will not, for doing so would falsely feed a narrative that our university suppresses speech it does not like and would undermine the principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom that make it possible for us to fulfill our mission.
Academic freedom includes the rights and responsibilities afforded to faculty members to create and disseminate knowledge and seek truth as the individual understands it, subject to the standards of their disciplines and the rational methods by which truth is established. Even legal scholars who reject Professor Eastman’s constitutional arguments recognize his theories are debatable.
If I would deny Professor Eastman these rights, it would weaken our ability to defend our entire faculty’s pursuit and dissemination of scholarship without fear of censorship or retaliation, even when it offends the sensibilities of others and makes people uncomfortable. However, I do encourage all of us—our visiting scholars included—to remember that while we as faculty have the privilege of academic freedom, that privilege comes with significant collective and individual responsibilities.
As stated in the American Association of University Professors 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, “College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence, they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.”
People can, and do, judge our institution by what we say. We must never forget that what we do and say as scholars has real impact, and that upholding the principles that enable our mission and support our democracy is more important now than ever—particularly as we seek to build a more inclusive climate within our campus and our country.
Last year, the Office of Faculty Affairs initiated a campus-wide discussion to enable a clearer understanding of academic freedom and its vital importance on our campus. In that spirit, Provost Moore and I, in coordination with the Office of Faculty Affairs, will host panel discussions this fall and spring that will include a range of representatives and perspectives. Our discussions will include a panel on how scholarship can impact our community’s Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), can be weaponized and has the potential to marginalize.
I hope you will join us in these important and necessary conversations, and I am grateful for your tireless work and commitment to our mission during this difficult time.
Philip P. DiStefano