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The Mission of Liberal Arts Education

March 1, 2016

  Photo by John Seyfried

Last week, a blog published selected screen shots of an Oberlin assistant professor’s personal social media posts and characterized them as anti-Semitic.

Since the initial blog post, I have heard from many people. Their messages range from demands for the professor’s immediate dismissal to demands that her right to free expression be defended at all costs.

The screenshots affected me on a very personal level. I am a practicing Jew, grandson of an Orthodox rabbi. Members of our family were murdered in the Holocaust. As someone who has studied history, I cannot comprehend how any person could or would question its existence, its horrors, and the evil which caused it. I feel the same way about anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Regardless of the reason for spreading these materials, they cause pain for many people—members of our community and beyond.

I am also the son of a tenured faculty member at a large research university. My father instilled in me a strong belief in academic freedom. I believe, as the American Association of University Professors says, that academic freedom is “the indispensable quality of institutions of higher education” because it encourages free inquiry, promotes the expansion of knowledge, and creates an environment in which learning and research can flourish.

At Oberlin, we are deeply committed to our mission of achieving academic, artistic, and musical excellence and ensuring our students a diverse, inclusive, and equitable educational experience. We demand intellectual rigor and apply the highest academic standards. We also recognize that academic freedom and tenure do not protect unlawful discrimination and harassment, and we provide clear and accessible processes to review such concerns.

Cultivating academic freedom can be difficult and at times painful for any college community. The principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech are not just principles to which we turn to face these challenges, but also the very practices that ensure we can develop meaningful responses to prejudice. This freedom enables Oberlin’s faculty and students to think deeply about and to engage in frank, open discussion of ideas that some may find deeply offensive. Those discussions—in classrooms, residence halls, libraries, and across our campus and town—take place every day here. They are a vital part of the important work of liberal arts education at Oberlin and in our country.

Our community will address the issues raised in this situation by honoring the essence of liberal arts education at Oberlin by interrogating assertions with facts and deep, critical thinking from multiple viewpoints.