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Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom Alliance Letter to St. Olaf College

Religion and philosophy professor removed from directing a scholarly center for inviting Peter Singer to give a public lecture.


The Academic Freedom Alliance released a public letter to St. Olaf College  calling on the college to reaffirm the academic freedom of religion and philosophy professor Edmund Santurri.

Santurri has long served as the director of the Institute for Freedom and Community at St. Olaf. The Institute encourages inquiry and debate into contemporary political and social issues and seeks to present "diverse ideas" to the campus community on controversial issues relating to politics, markets, and society. As part of its programming, the Institute sponsors public lectures, and in recent years it has hosted lectures by a range of speakers, including David Brooks, Glenn Loury, Alice Dreger, Michael Sandel, Bari Weiss, and Bryan Caplan. Unsurprisingly, such speakers discussing such topics sometimes generate controversy on college campuses, and controversies have sometimes swirled around the Institute.

In the spring of 2022, such a controversy took a troubling turn. The Institute invited Princeton philosopher Peter Singer to give a public lecture on his views regarding contemporary moral philosophy. Singer is a controversial figure, and some students launched a petition calling for a boycott of his talk at St. Olaf. Several offices on campus set out emails to students distancing themselves from Singer's views, but the talk took place without disruption or cancellation.

Nonetheless, in apparent response to the Singer invitation, the president of St. Olaf College suddenly removed Santurri from his position as director of the Institute. Santurri had just recently been reappointed as director, and was in the middle of a two-year term in the position. His appointment as director included salary support and a teaching reduction.

The president of St. Olaf College has sent a very clear message to its faculty that there are limits on free inquiry on that college's campus and that the College will not tolerate speakers whose ideas are offensive to influential campus stakeholders. Like other college presidents, the president at St. Olaf has recognized that he can avoid disinvitation controversies if he simply prevents invitations from being sent to heterodox speakers in the first place. Professors who do not toe the party line will not be allowed to be in a position to invite speakers to campus. When the leading moral philosophers of the world are not welcome on your campus, you have an intellectual freedom problem.

From the AFA letter:

I write on behalf of the Academic Freedom Alliance to protest his premature removal from the directorship of the Institute. No member of the faculty is entitled to hold such an administrative position, but it is a grievous assault on the intellectual climate of the college for the director of a scholarly center to be precipitously dismissed from his post because the intellectual activities of the center offend members of the campus community.

. . . . Far from advancing the mission of the Institute, this decision to rescind Professor Santurri's appointment instead turns its back on that mission and announces that the Institute will not be allowed to expose students and faculty to a diverse range of ideas about politics and society but will instead be sharply constrained so that it does not challenge campus orthodoxies.

Read the whole thing here.