An Open Letter on Academic Freedom at Indiana University, Bloomington

FILE PHOTO — The area of the Sample Gates, and nearby Kirkwood, are deserted Sunday night after Indiana University announced that classes will be taught online for the remainder of the semester, and all events for the rest of the school year are canceled, Sunday, March 14, 2020 in Bloomington, Ind. Earlier in the evening the CDC recommended no events having more than 50 people in attendance in the United States for the next 8 weeks. (Photo by Jeremy Hogan/The Bloomingtonian)

The following was shared with the Bloomingtonian Tuesday:

November 21, 2023


On November 15, Republican Congressman Jim Banks sent a letter to Indiana University President Pamela Whitten questioning whether IU has been sufficiently responsive to antisemitism on campus and indicating that failure to satisfy his concerns “no later than December 1, 2023” could lead to Congressional investigation and possible funding cuts.

A group of Indiana University, Bloomington faculty members immediately began sharing concerns about the way the letter’s content and tone, combined with its barely veiled threat, endangered academic freedom and the free play of ideas that is central to higher education. The Open Letter below, signed by over 100 faculty members in the middle of Thanksgiving break, expresses these concerns. The letter is still “live,” and we anticipate a great many more signatures in the coming week.

The letter, also attached as a PDF file, is posted online here.

An Open Letter on Academic Freedom at Indiana University, Bloomington

We are faculty members of Indiana University, Bloomington. As IU professors who care deeply about academic freedom on our campus, we write to express our serious concern about the recent letter that has been sent by Rep. James Banks (R-IN) to IU President Pamela Whitten. In the letter, Rep. Banks raises questions about whether IU has been sufficiently responsive to antisemitism on campus, and indicates that failure to satisfy his concerns could lead to Congressional investigation and possible funding cuts.

We are alarmed by the threatening tone of the letter, the way in which it injects ideology into the proper governance of the university, and the way it conflates academic leadership with the policing of controversial ideas.

We understand that antisemitism is a form of hate that has no place in a diverse and inclusive university. We feel the same way about all forms of bigotry, including anti-Arab and Islamophobic discrimination and hostility.

We also strongly believe that it is essential to distinguish between real anti-Jewish conduct and pro-Palestinian advocacy. During this time of real crisis, tensions are high, and students, whether Jewish-American or Arab-American, whether “pro-Israeli” or “pro-Palestinian,” are upset, frightened, and feeling defensive. Real moral concerns and political arguments are being voiced. Some of the political rhetoric is no doubt hyperbolic and triggering. But most of this involves serious disagreements and has nothing to do with “hate crime.”

A campus is a place where young people come to learn, to expand their horizons, and to test out ideas and political convictions within the bounds of the law. It is not uncommon for college students to assume strong political positions and sometimes to speak in ways that offend others or strain the limits of academic freedom. We believe that the IU administration has an obligation to maintain safety for everyone on our campus. But we do not believe that any administration should be pressured to treat controversial political speech as a security threat, or to use legitimate safety concerns as a pretext to stifle academic freedom.

If Rep. Banks had written his letter with due concern about both Anti-semitism and Islamophobia; if he had expressed that concern without a threat of federal defunding of the university; if he had not unilaterally mandated a burden of reporting by a strict deadline; and if he had not made it clear that he regarded statements promoting a Palestinian-rights perspective to be intolerable, we would find his letter less inappropriate than we do. 

But in the present environment, his letter can only serve to further divide our students, by inhibiting the free expression of ideas—including controversial political ideas—at a time when the exchange of words rather than bullets is sorely needed.

November 21, 2023

Jeffrey C. Isaac, James H. Rudy of Political Science
Purnima Bose, Professor of English and International Studies
Alex Lichtenstein, Professor of History
Benjamin Robinson, Associate Professor of Germanic Studies

Editor’s note: We removed the names of the signatories by request on December 1, 2023.

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