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Academic Freedom Is Social Justice

Those of us who work in universities cannot allow polite fictions to be dressed up as facts

Carole Hooven
June 21, 2023
Original images: Huddersfield Examiner Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images; Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Original images: Huddersfield Examiner Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images; Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Original images: Huddersfield Examiner Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images; Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Original images: Huddersfield Examiner Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images; Brandon Bell/Getty Images

In 2014, Harvard student Sandra Korn wrote a column in the undergraduate newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, titled “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom: Let’s give up on academic freedom in favor of justice.” Korn, a joint major in history of science and studies of women, gender and sexuality, argued that rather than relying on the principle of “academic freedom” to guide decisions about what kinds of academic expression should be permissible, we should rely instead on principles of “academic justice”:

If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’? Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of ‘academic justice.’ When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue ... It is tempting to decry frustrating restrictions on academic research as violations of academic freedom. Yet I would encourage student and worker organizers to instead use a framework of justice. After all, if we give up our obsessive reliance on the doctrine of academic freedom, we can consider more thoughtfully what is just.

A fellow undergraduate, Garrett Lam, a neurobiology and philosophy major, penned a response, “Academic Freedom Is Academic Justice.” He answered “Korn’s central question: If we oppose social injustice, ‘why should we put up with research that counters our goals?’” Thus:

We shouldn’t ... science can do many things, but it can’t justify oppression. After all, science tells us the way things are. It tells us what is natural. But just because things are a certain way does not mean they ought to be that way ... If we believe people should be treated equally, an institution that treats them unequally opposes our values. But even if it were true that people are born with unequal capacities, this would not imply that we should treat them unequally ... Rather than closing our eyes and plugging our ears (which, by the way, wouldn’t make [scientific] truths cease to exist), we’re better off confronting them in the long run. After all, we choose how to apply knowledge, and can leverage it to effect the change we want in the world.

During the Korn/Lam exchange, I was busy teaching and advising Harvard undergraduates in my department, Human Evolutionary Biology, and somehow missed it. But it was far from the first time that members of the Harvard community disagreed about the limits of academic freedom. One particularly noteworthy event occurred in 2005, months after I’d earned my Ph.D. from Harvard (on testosterone and sex differences in cognition). I was furiously preparing to teach my very first class as a lecturer, “The Evolution of Human Sex Differences,” when the president of Harvard, Larry Summers, plunged right into my area of expertise.

At what was supposed to be a small, closed conference focusing on the problem of the underrepresentation of women in STEM careers, Summers gave a talk in which he proffered several hypotheses to explain the imbalanced sex ratio. One invoked “different socialization and patterns of discrimination” which was unlikely to ruffle any feathers. But another hypothesis was that the underrepresentation was partly due to “different availability of aptitude at the high end.” It does appear that on many traits, including cognitive ones, males vary more than females—the male distribution curve is flatter, with more males than females in both the high and low tails. As Summers noted, this can result in a large male bias at the extreme levels of ability, from which elite universities draw their STEM job candidates.

Although Summers only said that he was offering his “best guesses” which “may be all wrong,” when his remarks were leaked, the Harvard campus (and the wider world) exploded in controversy. I was interviewed by a writer for the Crimson, and said what seemed obvious to me: “We tend to put blinders onto science when the explanations for behavior or social problems are distasteful or difficult ... We must explore all reasonable hypotheses.” Summers said what he did because he believed that openly debating the possible causes of a problem was an important step in trying to solve it. All these years later, I am even more convinced that this is right.

I teach behavioral endocrinology, which touches on sensitive issues related to stress and trauma, health disorders, and sex and gender. Student after student has told me how learning about this topic has helped them personally: gay students who have gained the confidence to come out to their families; trans students armed with knowledge about how hormones shape behavior and impact gender transitions; and students with differences/disorders/variations of sexual development, who can make better decisions about treatments. Students also tell me that learning about the science of sex and gender has increased their understanding and empathy—especially toward those who are different in terms of sex-related biology or gender expression. Many of them have been inspired to pursue careers in the medical or psychological fields as a way to care for people with such differences. These are the same students who don’t always agree with me about where the evidence points, but we almost always have productive, respectful conversations, in and out of class.

Unfortunately, the production and communication of science, on university campuses, scientific journals, and the popular press, has become more politicized over the last few decades. As academic freedom has been significantly eroded, disagreements about its limits have become more extreme and heated. One recent example of this erosion is a statement from the editor of the prestigious journal Nature Human Behavior, describing new guidelines and policies that echo Ms. Korn’s proposal in her 2014 Crimson article. The editorial, innocuously titled “Science must respect the dignity and rights of all humans,” indicates that editors’ publishing decisions will be influenced by their judgments about an article’s potential to “cause harm.” Problematic content includes that which “undermines—or could reasonably be perceived to undermine—the rights and dignities of an individual or human group on the basis of socially constructed or socially relevant human groupings.” Groupings based on “sex, gender identity, sexual orientation” are given as examples.

Since the word “dignities” in particular is hopelessly vague and subjective, policies of this sort threaten to further restrict scientific research and scholarship in the areas of sex and gender. If we restrict research on the basis that it may undermine “dignities,” then we place severe limits on our ability to discover what is true. And to whom should we bestow the power to determine our “dignities,” and what qualifies as undermining them? Are these judges of dignity deemed to be the most moral among us? Would they represent everyone’s views, or just a subset of society? Or would they be elevated to the position by others with power?

Last but not least, when we censor research that fails the “dignity test”—say, research claiming that psychological sex differences may have some biological origin—we implicitly endorse the idea that troubling ethical and practical consequences follow from evidence of group differences. That is a big mistake, one that science educators, researchers, and publishers should focus on correcting before real damage is done to science, and to the lives of vulnerable people.

Apart from helping to attract a huge number of students to my seminar on sex differences, the Summers controversy had no practical effect on my work or life at Harvard. But a similar controversy, in which I became embroiled 16 years later, did. I found myself on the receiving end of public moral outrage in response to comments I made about human sex differences (also on a public platform), which have impinged upon my ability to teach and research in my area of interest and expertise. As a result, I am currently on leave from my position at Harvard.

Part of what is significant about my case, and most others like it, is that the limits on my academic freedom were not set by explicit, detailed, formal guidelines and policies like those outlined in the Nature Human Behavior editorial. Rather, my troubles were due to informal and personal attacks on my character, initiated by people without much institutional power, but implicitly sanctioned by those with it.

In the summer of 2021, shortly after the publication of my book T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us, I appeared on Fox and Friends, a news program on the Fox network. I was asked to comment on an article written by the journalist Katie Herzog, about the pressure some professors felt to back away from using language like “male and female” and “pregnant women” in teaching.

I agreed to appear on Fox and Friends for a few reasons. First, my book had just been released and I wanted it to reach as large an audience as possible. Second, while I am in favor of using language that makes people feel respected and comfortable, I feel strongly that we should resist succumbing to the demands of bullies and be unafraid to use clear, indispensable scientific terms like “male” and “female.” And third, I wanted to explain that sex categories are facts of nature which do not carry implications for anyone’s value or rights. I had nothing to say in the interview about how to describe pregnancy.

While people might have objected to just about anything I said, simply because I said it on Fox, here’s the bit that got me in real trouble:

The facts are that there are ... two sexes ... there are male and female, and those sexes are designated by the kinds of gametes we produce ... The ideology seems to be that biology really isn’t as important as how somebody feels about themselves or feels their sex to be, but we can treat people with respect and respect their gender identities and use their preferred pronouns, so understanding the facts about biology doesn’t prevent us from treating people with respect.

In response to my appearance, a graduate student tweeted out a thread, representing herself in her official capacity as director of my department’s Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging task force. She said, among other things, that she was “appalled” by my “transphobic” and “dangerous” remarks which allegedly interfered with the task force’s efforts to ensure that the department was a “safe space” for people of “all gender identities and sexes.”

At the time, I had few followers on Twitter and was not particularly active on the platform. I was not tagged in the student’s tweet. I learned about it secondhand. I felt scared and nervous that this awful portrayal of me, written by someone in an official position in my own department, was broadcast to the entire world. (This might be a good time to make clear that I care deeply about my students, whatever their identities happen to be. Based on my strong relationships with students, their comments and reviews of my teaching, the teaching and advising awards I have earned, and my being repeatedly voted one of “Harvard’s favorite professors.”)

Since I thought the tweet thread might adversely affect my relationship with future undergraduates and my reputation in general, I attempted to control the situation by quote-tweeting the thread, asking the student to explain what I had said that was harmful to undergraduates. I didn’t get what I considered a straight answer. Soon the whole thing went viral, with headlines like “Harvard professor Carole Hooven who refused to use term ‘pregnant people’ rather than ‘woman’ is accused of transphobia.” Again, I never said anything about “pregnant people,” but some newspapers seem not to care about getting the facts straight.

Most of the public (and private) comments and coverage were in my favor, and the graduate student received lots of criticism on Twitter, some of it harsh. Inside Harvard, though, things were quite different. Soon a narrative developed in the department that I was the primary bad actor, “punching down,” and had caused a graduate student to suffer abuse. A petition against me was linked to a Crimson article about the incident. Thankfully, the petition never gained much steam, but the damage had been done. I found myself walking with my head down in places on campus where I used to feel at home. I feared that someone might recognize me as the “transphobe” from whom students needed to be protected.

Being called transphobic for declaring the reality of sex on Fox and Friends was not a complete surprise; in the few years leading up to that appearance, I had felt an increasing intolerance of straight talk about what it means to be male or female. What was a surprise was the way people “in charge” responded: Vacations were interrupted by this “situation,” and a flurry of activity followed, in the form of emails, phone calls, and Zoom meetings. I was not privy to most of it, however.

Even though someone publicly maligned my speech in their official capacity as a representative of the institution, which is a clear violation of Harvard’s Free Speech Guidelines, the person who maligned me was not sanctioned. A few faculty members, still my good friends, expressed concern about my well-being and supported me personally, and I owe them a debt of gratitude. But despite my pleas for help, those who could have done so failed to defend my right to express my views and to communicate biological facts, to apologize for what happened, or to make any statement on my behalf.

Unfortunately, that episode turned out to be just the beginning. There were two more incidents in which I was publicly called “transphobic” for making benign and obvious statements about the science of sex. All three incidents were perpetrated by official representatives of universities, though not all of them occurred at Harvard. Again, in these subsequent incidents, public support from people in positions of authority was nonexistent.

Of course, there are many other examples of an upward trend in personal attacks on scholars by fellow members of the campus community. Such attacks damage not only mental health but also research programs and careers, not to mention sending shivers up the spines of countless other scholars who witness the resulting wreckage. Many others have written about these incidents and what can be done to protect the rights of scholars to pursue their work in an environment free from harassment. Here I hope that my personal experience provides some additional insight.

When Larry Summers talked about “intrinsic” sex differences in 2005, he stirred up sentiments that foreshadowed the response to my statements in 2021 about what it means to be male or female. Summers expected disagreement and debate from his fellow scholars, and he did get that. But rather than using evidence and argument to illustrate why he might have been wrong, or even debating the proper limits on the speech of a university president, many also (or only) expressed moral outrage, using words like “offended,” “furious,” and “upset,” in response to his “hogwash” claims that “feed the virulent prejudices.”

In 2005, questioning the idea that the sexes are psychologically identical was taboo in some circles, and those who violated it were seen as immoral. This prohibition, this taboo, made a certain kind of sense: “Bad science” has done real harms to women. If we refuse to even entertain the idea that women might be intellectually inferior to men in some way, the story goes, then we could prevent the harms to which such claims might lead.

Today, the taboo on straight talk about sex differences is still in place, but in a more extreme form. Now the act of simply comparing males vs. females contains a taboo idea: Sex is binary and biological. Just as talk about sex differences has been interpreted to be damaging to women’s rights, today straight talk about the reality of sex seems to be taken as damaging to transgender rights. If some activists believe that a denial of the reality of sex is necessary for transgender people to live in dignity, then one can understand the motivation to shut down discussion. As Steven Pinker put it in his prescient book The Blank Slate:

Some values are considered not just worthy but sacrosanct. They have infinite or transcendental worth, trumping all other considerations. One is not permitted even to think of trading them off against other values, because the very thought is self-evidently sinful and deserves only condemnation and outrage.

On Fox and Friends, I mentioned an “ideology.” This way of thinking maintains that the traditional division into male and female is deeply flawed, and moreover, sex itself is not grounded in material reality. This ideology is reflected not just in the popular press but in scientific journals and magazines. To wit: “Biological science rejects the sex binary, and that’s good for humanity”; “The idea that science can make definitive conclusions about a person’s sex or gender is fundamentally flawed”; “Transwomen are women. We are female”; “Actual research shows that sex is anything but binary”; “biologically speaking, there are many gradations running from female to male; along that spectrum lie at least five sexes”; and so on.

By saying in public what I believe to be the truth, I violated a taboo. I failed to follow the directions of fellow scientists to “Stop Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia”, as one Scientific American headline directed.

Which science is purportedly “phony”? Exactly that which I invoked on Fox and Friends: There are two (and only two) sexes, male and female, and they are based on the types of gametes organisms are designed to produce. Of course people who are transgender, experience gender dysphoria, identify as queer, have differences (or disorders, or variations) of sexual development, or are members of other gender minorities, are real, and deserve the same basic human rights as anyone else. But the true threat to science, and to human dignity is the idea that in order to support anyone’s rights we must deny or ignore reality.

While some who are fighting for the rights of gender minorities may sincerely believe that subverting science is necessary to protect an oppressed or endangered population, department chairs and university presidents are tasked with ensuring that the campus environment is one in which the fundamental ideals of truth-seeking and academic freedom are not only defended, but actively promoted. It should not be too much to ask that they firmly hold the line between ignorance and knowledge, between subjective and objective, between our feelings and the facts.

University administrators, like everyone else, are sensitive to threats to their reputations and job security. But a firm and unequivocal policy can help to offload the administrator’s responsibility, allowing her to say that she is simply applying the settled rules.

Another force inhibits administrators: the now-ubiquitous acceptance of vague and subjective principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the consequent investment of vast quantities of time and money in ensuring that these principles guide all the actions of the university community. While these initiatives have improved the campus environment in some respects, they have harmed it in others. Students have become conditioned to believe that it is their right to be free from offense, whether in the classroom or even the dining hall, and they have framed ringing endorsements of academic freedom as covert defenses of bigotry and injustice.

There are solutions, in addition to clear and forthright policies. To begin with, university leaders must be encouraged to develop a moral compass, integrity, and a backbone—admittedly, this is often a tall order. Second, the university’s position on academic freedom must be clearly stated and frequently trumpeted. Third, administrators should never weigh in on the accuracy of controversial or offensive claims—doing so signals that views that fail the purity test are less deserving of protection. And finally, university leadership must frequently remind the campus community that the foremost mission of a university is the pursuit, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge.

In 2020, Robert Zimmer, the then-president of the University of Chicago, provided a model for how this can work. More than 100 undergraduate students and postdoctoral researchers petitioned the university to sanction Dorian Abbot, a tenured professor of geophysics. Abbot had publicly criticized affirmative action programs and DEI initiatives, which the students claimed was harmful. Zimmer did not weigh in on the content of Abbot’s claims. He refrained from apologizing, enabling offended students, or acquiescing to anyone’s demands. Zimmer simply posted on the university’s official website a reiteration of the school’s academic freedom policies.

Today’s chilly climate for off-campus expression of scientifically accurate views about sex has its source in universities. Those of us who work in them have a responsibility to resist the temptation to keep quiet when falsehoods dressed as facts are promulgated. We also have a duty to articulate and defend the principles of academic freedom. Our role as academics is to do our best work independent of the ideological zeitgeist. To slightly reword Garrett Lam’s 2014 Crimson article headline, academic freedom is social justice.

Carole Hooven is an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University in the psychology department. She is the author of T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us.