Does Fear Of Being Labeled Unprofessional Inhibit Free Speech


Does Fear Of Being Labeled Unprofessional Inhibit Free Speech?


Leonard Zwelling

In The Wall Street Journal on January 24, Daryl Morey, the president of basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers and a graduate of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, notes that both the faculty and students at MIT are inhibited from speaking their minds of late. MIT has been listed by the Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) as “181st out of 203 universities when it comes to students’ belief that the administration will protect their speech rights.” Thirty-eight percent of the faculty agree. Both students and faculty are self-censoring themselves for fear of making an offending remark. Universities are disinviting controversial speakers when it is at universities that controversial points of view should be aired.

So, what is it about a behavior or remark that would get it labeled unprofessional? It is usually that someone was offended by someone else’s behavior or remark. Here we are back where this blog has been so many times before. We must defend the freedom to offend in any institution that professes to have a free speech policy. It is fine to set limits on free speech. Sexual harassment, racism, antisemitism, or any form of discriminatory language should not be tolerated, BUT, just because you look at someone crossways and perhaps discipline them in the course of normal business does not mean you have committed an offense that should lead to your dismissal.

Throughout the academic and business world, the forces of wokeness are trying to dictate one institutional point of view that is acceptable and to eliminate contrary opinions. That’s pretty much what professionalism is all about.

A faculty member is accused of having been “unprofessional.” The institution does an internal investigation and tends to side with the accuser, even when, or especially when, the accused is an established and productive member of the faculty. This heavy-handedness by the administration puts a real chill in academic interchange and inhibits the expression of viewpoints that may be held by a minority. In this way, professionalism has been weaponized and fear pervades the faculty. This cannot be a good idea.

If this is a problem at an institution as prestigious as MIT, it may well be a problem in lots of places. In general, the liberal domination of academic institutions tends to cram acceptable opinions into a rather narrow funnel. Furthermore, penalizing faculty with job loss because of a small lapse in decorum seems both uncharitable and poorly thought out. I personally know of at least three excellent faculty members lost to MD Anderson because of the administration’s stance about their behavior. The dismissals are predicated on internal investigations done by MD Anderson personnel or outside counsel being paid by MD Anderson. How can this be fair?

Just as Mr. Morey implores the new MIT president Sally Kornbluth (recently the provost at Duke University) to endorse the MIT Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom, this blog is asking Dr. Pisters to endorse support of the faculty of MD Anderson and to minimize the resorting to “unprofessionalism” as a means of getting rid of highly-ranked faculty.

All academic institutions need people with contrary points of view that are often outside the mainstream. These are the very people who universities should embrace.

Perhaps, during my time at MD Anderson, no one embodied contrarian thinking more than Dr. Freireich. I often did not agree with him about many things, but I also always appreciated his unusual thinking and it will be Dr. Freireich, not Dr. Zwelling, who will be remembered for making remarkable contributions to the treatment of human malignancy BECAUSE he was a contrarian.

We need these people at MD Anderson just as MIT needs those willing to speak out against the mainstream.

By the current standards, I am quite sure that Dr. Freireich would have been considered unprofessional by the current MD Anderson administration. They would have dismissed him. Thousands of patients would have been worse off had that occurred.

2 thoughts on “Does Fear Of Being Labeled Unprofessional Inhibit Free Speech”

  1. Jay Freireich was brilliant. Off the charts. In my 35-year academic career, I never met anyone like him. His contributions to medicine and science are immense. He could analyze complex medical data, often far outside his own disciplinary area, in a flash and provide deep and comprehensive insights. When on a roll, he was an amazing sight to behold. But he would have no place in MD Anderson’s current woke- and equity-suffused administration. The big losers would be science and medicine. No offense intended to MD Anderson administrators (because about 30 percent are effective and necessary), but I wouldn’t swap a thousand for one Jay Freireich. RIP J (There’s no period after my middle initial, sayeth he.)

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