Duke has a long, cherished tradition of academic freedom—a tradition that seems to have been forgotten in the midst of the University’s contemporary ventures abroad.
It all started in 1902, when John Spencer Bassett, professor of history at Trinity College, founded “The South Atlantic Quarterly,” a journal devoted to documenting development in the South, so as to promote the “liberty to think.” In one of his most conspicuous articles, “Stirring up the fires of race antipathy,” Bassett revealed his controversial opinion on the role of the Democratic Party in propagating race antipathy against blacks in the South. Having received the final edition of his article from the Quarterly’s editors, Bassett illicitly inserted a sentence that likely would have been retracted from previous drafts. “Now [Booker T.] Washington is a great and good man,” he opined, “all in all the greatest man, save General Lee, born in the South in a hundred years.” After Bassett’s article was published, clear battle lines were drawn between the Democratic Party’s establishment and supporters of the then emerging ideal of academic freedom. The state’s party leaders immediately called for Bassett to be relieved of his position at Trinity College. Josephus Daniels, then publisher of the “Raleigh News and Observer,” wrote “the consensus of opinion is that Prof. Bassett should be compelled to resign his position on the faculty of Trinity College at once.” Due, in large part, to the flurry of criticisms the College had received, Bassett soon offered his resignation to the Board of Trustees. President Kilgo and several faculty members, however, praised Bassett’s work at the institution. The student government soon passed a resolution in support of the professor, and James Southgate, then chairman of the Board of Trustees, received letters from John Crowell, the former president of Trinity College, and several alumni defending Bassett’s right to express his views. In due time, every member of Trinity’s faculty had agreed to offer his resignation if the Board voted to request Bassett’s. Eventually, the Board voted to refuse Bassett’s resignation, thereby causing Trinity to become one of the first institutions of higher education to stand for academic freedom.
Ever since then, the issues of free speech and academic freedom have long brought many controversies to the University. On Dec. 6, 1930, for instance, Duke’s Liberal Club hosted a lecture by Norman Thomas, the 1928 presidential candidate for the Socialist Party. Within days following Thomas’ appearance, the “Southern Textile Bulletin” scolded the University for having accommodated “an advocate of social equality between the races.” William Perkins, namesake of Perkins Library and then a trustee of the University, sent President Few a duplicate of the editorial in an effort to gauge his opinion on the issue at hand. Directly referencing the Bassett affair of earlier years, Few responded that there has always been a “danger in the old South of the prostitution of higher education by politics” and that “in North Carolina, at least, we have won that fight.” Undoubtedly, he continued, “It is the business of Duke University to hear both sides of all questions” and to “give a fair hearing to every well-meaning man.”
With every controversy regarding academic freedom, it became clearer that Duke’s administrators were unwilling to forego the institution’s values so as to appease the social and political tensions around them.
This trend would continue throughout the years. Another controversial incident occurred when Joseph Wetherby, then director of the Duke Debate Team, defended students’ right to argue whether the United States should extend diplomatic recognition to the newly established Communist government of China. The Associated Press reported on Wetherby’s defense after the U.S. Secretaries of the Army and Navy had forbidden the West Point and Annapolis debate teams from arguing the topic. Nonetheless, the Duke Debate Team eventually participated in the year’s tournaments, and Ben Smith, an alumnus and then superintendent of schools in Greensboro, N.C., invited members of the team to present their arguments before a local Kiwanis Club. When questions surrounding the invitation surfaced, the “Greensboro Daily News” recapped that Duke was following a tradition set years ago “by refusing to dismiss Professor John Spencer Bassett because of the clamor he raised when he expressed an unpopular view.”
President Keohane once proclaimed that “on free speech issues, Trinity and Duke have always stood firm.” Sure enough, this is evidenced by history, not necessarily, however, by contemporary developments in Kunshan.
In various ways, Kunshan strikes a resemblance to New York University’s campus in Shanghai. In fact, the faculty at NYU recently queried their Trustees on academic freedom at the institution’s campus in Shanghai. “We are obliged to record some grave concerns expressed by our members about the prospects for academic freedom in China,” read the letter presented by the faculty. “Simple questions, such as whether Chinese students are exempted from the nationally-mandated ideological courses that all Chinese students must take to gain a Ministry of Education degree, have not been clarified,” the letter indicated. “We have learned from press coverage that Chinese students will be forced to fulfill their first summer requirement to serve in military camps.” Additionally, in light of the recent dismissals of an economics professor, Xia Yeliang, at Peking University and a law professor, Zhang Xuezhong, at East China University, the revelation that China is employing two million of its own people to run an online surveillance program, the prohibition of seven scholarly topics—including judicial independence, economic neo-liberalism and civil rights—from being discussed in the classroom and the lack of evidence of any agreement signed between the Chinese government and NYU’s administration, the faculty at New York University were right to question the Trustees on the matter of academic freedom. Even though NYU’s President, John Sexton, indicated that the campus in Shanghai would be granted unfettered internet access, the faculty members responded that it would be difficult to “imagine the campus can subsist as a bubble on an information landscape that is so severely constrained. Under such circumstances,” they continued, “self-censorship of instructors and students is certain, even if formal state surveillance can be kept at bay.”
Nora Bynum, the vice provost for DKU and China initiatives, recently addressed faculty concerns regarding academic freedom at the latest meeting of the Arts and Sciences Council. Bynum noted that the Association of American Universities, of which Duke is a member, as well as many Chinese universities, ironically including Peking University, had signed onto a statement avowing the characteristics of a research university. Among these characteristics are “the responsible exercise of academic freedom by faculty,” “teaching and service without undue constraint,” “a welcoming of competing views” and “a commitment to civil debate.” Statements such as these, however, are prone to different interpretations or, eventually, disregard by the Chinese government. Though Bynum noted that Mary Bullock, the executive vice chancellor for DKU, will report any issues regarding academic freedom to the Provost, who will then report to the Council, administrators should take active steps to protect Duke’s tradition of academic freedom in Kunshan and include students and faculty, who are not members of the Council, in the ongoing discussions.
In the Board of Trustees’ decision not to accept Professor Bassett’s resignation, the Trustees wrote, “We are particularly unwilling to lend ourselves to any tendency to destroy or limit academic liberty, a tendency which has, within recent years, manifested itself in some conspicuous instances, and which has created a feeling of uneasiness for the welfare of American colleges.”
They say that history repeats itself. With its reactions to the Bassett affair, the Norman Thomas lecture and the debate team’s argument on Communist China, Duke had set an example for other institutions of higher education. Now is the time that the University ought to do so in its ventures abroad: Duke, once again, can ensure that it will be the first to successfully stand for academic freedom in China.Mousa Alshanteer is a Trinity sophomore and the editorial page managing editor. His biweekly column is part of the weekly Editor’s Note feature and will run on alternate Thursdays. Send Mousa a message on Twitter @MousaAlshanteer.