Joseph Epstein wrote a controversial column last week saying Jill Biden should stop using the courtesy title “Dr.,” despite her doctorate in education. Leave that title for physicians, Epstein said on the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page.
The column set off fireworks among academics and intellectuals. The epicenter was Northwestern University, where Epstein, a prolific and erudite essayist, has long been listed as a “lecturer” in the English Department. No more. His name disappeared immediately from the department website. Ditching him quietly wasn’t enough for university administrators, who issued a blistering official condemnation of Epstein’s views. They added that he hadn’t really been a lecturer since 2003, without mentioning his many years of teaching there.
In a news release, Northwestern offered 10 pro forma words of support for academic freedom before turning to the real goal: lacerating Epstein.
While we firmly support academic freedom and freedom of expression, we do not agree with Mr. Epstein’s opinion and believe the designation of doctor is well deserved by anyone who has earned a Ph.D., an Ed.D. or an M.D.
Northwestern is firmly committed to equity, diversity and inclusion, and strongly disagrees with Mr. Epstein’s misogynistic views.
What’s the problem with Northwestern’s statement? It is not their defense of using “Dr.” for Ph.D.s or Ed.Ds. Jill Biden earned the latter degree, and she has every right to use the title, if she wishes. Henry Kissinger used it after he joined the Nixon administration, believing it carried more weight than “professor” with journalists, policymakers, and the general public. At Harvard, where he had been teaching, “Dr.” is reserved for physicians. But he wasn’t on campus, and neither is Jill Biden. Neither are thousands of psychologists and educators who use the term regularly.
Is there a problem with Epstein’s column, then? Hordes of bloggers and Internet commenters certainly think so. Fine. Let them say their piece, preferably using actual arguments instead of name-calling. Let Epstein defend his views, along with others who liked his column. That’s what freedom of speech means.
The real problem here is not with Jill Biden’s title or the back-and-forth over Epstein’s essay. The real problem here is that Northwestern University decided to issue an official condemnation. The university administration labeled Epstein’s view “misogynistic.” The English Department added its own statement. It, too, “rejects [Epstein’s] opinion.”
These official statements show how clueless Northwestern’s senior academic administrators are about what academic freedom means and how to protect it. The best way to encourage students and faculty to express their views — to engage each other in a free marketplace of ideas — is for administrators to remain silent on nearly all political issues. The only exceptions are policy questions that bear directly on the university as an institution, such federal loans for students.
Why should university leaders and departments be so circumspect? So individual students, faculty, and staff will feel free to express their own opinions without fear of official retaliation. Even if the entire political science department thinks the U.S. should reenter the Iran nuclear deal or the Paris climate accord, the department itself should never say so. Not in its official capacity. Every member is welcome to sign a petition individually. But doing so as a corporate body is simply inappropriate for the department, the university president, or the university itself.
Some political issues are fair game for the university’s official opinions. It has a direct stake in immigration policies that might prevent international students from matriculating. It has a direct stake in federal funding for the sciences. It has a direct stake in Washington’s rules for Title IX complaints since it has to adjudicate them for university members. But even in those cases, the university should be careful that its official statements don’t discourage alternative views from students or faculty. That’s what it means for a university to protect academic freedom.
That’s why it was wrong for Northwestern to officially condemn Joseph Epstein for his views. Let individual faculty and students do that, if they wish. Let them march and write editorials. And let Epstein fire back in his own defense.
Using 10 mushy words in a subordinate clause to defend academic freedom is pathetic. Northwestern’s leaders need to go back to school. They need to learn what it really means to defend freedom of speech.