Adam Falk Address to PBK

The Price of the Pin, Adam Falk, Harvard Literary Exercises, May 23, 2023


It’s truly an honor to have been invited to offer some remarks at this august gathering. I’ve spoken in public more times than I can count, but I’ve never before been invited to give something called an “oration.” Still, if any occasion calls for oratory, this is it, and I will do my best. My warmest congratulations to you, the 2023 inductees into Phi Beta Kappa, and to your professors, your families, and everyone who has supported you on your journey through Harvard. 

I managed to find my own Phi Beta Kappa key from my years at the University of North Carolina, and I’ve brought it with me today. Believe it or not, when I was first offered membership in Phi Beta Kappa, I turned it down. I’d actually never heard of Phi Beta Kappa, and I was suspicious of some organization that was inviting me to join them at the price of purchasing a pin, in the form of a key, for $57. I should tell you that in those days, $57 was half a month’s rent for me. No one bothered to tell me why Phi Beta Kappa mattered, and I wasn’t interested in just putting things on my resume. The next year, however, the invitation was renewed, and by then I’d come to better appreciate what membership in Phi Beta Kappa really means. It’s not about the pin.

What your membership in Phi Beta Kappa signifies is your deep engagement with what is actually the core of this university, its academic mission. You are here today because learning wasn’t just one of the things you did here at Harvard; rather, it has been for you a central and foundational commitment. And yes, of course, you were good at it. But the faculty who have come today to celebrate you aren’t here to honor your grade point average. They are here because you have embraced what these faculty themselves came to Harvard to offer you. Whether you studied physics or English or neuroscience or philosophy or economics or anthropology or the classics, you have engaged deeply with the real purpose of this institution. You’ve shown that you share, with these faculty, an appreciation for why Harvard is here, and for what it—and all universities—stand for. 

You get it. And that means both that you are honored today, and that you are now endowed with a new responsibility, one to carry with you throughout your lives. It’s a responsibility to academia itself, and today I’d like to talk with you about that responsibility. 

The first important thing to say about academia is that it’s an institution that transcends national borders, cultural differences, and language barriers. Academics recognize each other as fellow citizens of a global community with a set of shared values and commitments. These shared values are revealed particularly in times of crisis, such as when we provide shelter to fellow scholars who are persecuted or in danger in their home countries. Harvard University has long been exemplary in this very regard. For the past two decades, working with the Scholars At Risk Network, Harvard has provided visiting fellowships to researchers threatened because of who they are, where they are, or what they study. The approximately 100 academics Harvard has hosted through this program represent more than 30 countries, and in a given year there are typically four to six scholars in residence. These scholars are invited to Harvard so that they may continue their academic work in safety and find permanent positions elsewhere. After the 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the program expanded dramatically, with 24 additional Afghan scholars invited to Cambridge. I learned about Harvard’s work with Scholars At Risk, on whose board I happen to sit, through an article in the January issue of Harvard Magazine, which I strongly recommend you read if you haven’t already. It made me proud to be a Harvard alumnus.

As it happens, such a story also runs through my own family. Both my father and my maternal grandfather were scholars who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s. My father received his doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in 1930, his thesis titled Das Werturteil, Eine logische Grundfrage der Wirtschaftswissenschaft, or in English, The Value Judgement: A Fundamental Logical Question in Economics. It is an amazing and wonderful thing about Harvard that the Widener Library has a copy of this distant and forgotten document, almost a century old and in another language. It’s an even more amazing and wonderful thing that the Widener Library found it, and that, across so much time and space, I can hold it here today.

My father was a 27-year-old professor when in 1933 he left Berlin for England, where he built a new academic life and re-invented himself as a moral philosopher. Although this German Jew who arrived in England with no English was quite different from the other Oxford dons, he was accepted as a fellow scholar, interested in ideas that mattered deeply to them in common. On my mother’s side, my meteorologist grandfather left Germany in 1935 for the University of Melbourne, where he, too, was welcomed to a new academic home. 

Of course, these deep connections are not confined to the refugee experience or to times of crisis. So, what are these values that bind us together in the academy? What do we academics see in each other that we recognize so clearly, powerfully, and universally? I maintain that what we share is a first loyalty to our academic disciplines—not to our governments, nor to our employers, but to our disciplines.

This loyalty is sometimes described as loyalty to the truth, or to the pursuit of truth, but I think this conception is both limiting and unnecessarily grandiose. Yes, there are fields such as physics in which the nature of inquiry is to investigate phenomena whose behavior is independent of time and place, and thus perhaps such inquiry can reasonably be described as the pursuit of “truths.” In contrast, the purpose of a discipline such as literature, while every bit as important as physics, is not to uncover truths per se. Rather it is to investigate humanity through the lens of the cultural artifacts we have produced in a particular time and place. The study of literature has its own appropriate methods of inquiry and objects of study—methods and objects that, as in physics, change over time and on occasion are in dispute. In any field in the academy, the methods of inquiry and objects of study together define a discipline. In a somewhat circular way, the boundaries and standards of a discipline are maintained by the practitioners themselves—professors, researchers, critics, intellectuals, and so on. They maintain these boundaries and standards through academic practices such as publishing, criticism, appointment, and promotion. Sometimes there is conflict about these boundaries and standards, and sometimes that conflict is strenuous and even bitter—which is how we can tell that these disciplinary boundaries and standards really matter to us. Sometimes, even, these conflicts cannot be resolved, and then disciplines can schism.

At its heart, to be an academic is to be responsible for submitting oneself to the messy, human, and imperfect judgement of one’s disciplinary peers. And here’s the thing: with this submission to the authority of the discipline comes freedom from other forms of authority. Legitimate work in chemistry, or sociology, or political science, or art, is not what the governor of your state, nor the president of your university, says it is. Legitimate academic work is free to provoke, free to challenge, free to head off in new directions, and free, too, to ask the same question over and over again for decades or even centuries. 

This loyalty to our disciplines is what makes possible academic freedom, the central value that binds the academy into a single community. This concept of academic freedom emerged in the 19th century German university, and in this country was codified clearly by the American Association of University Professors in a series of statements published in 1915, 1945, and 1970. Notably, academic freedom is something distinct from the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The highest purpose of the First Amendment is to ensure a healthy polity, by preserving from government interference the free exchange of ideas. There can be no democracy without the full freedom to speak about matters of public concern, and that’s why this is the first constitutionally protected right. By contrast, the purpose of academic freedom is narrower and confined to the academy: to preserve the exchange of ideas that ensures a healthy academic community, so that these institutions may contribute to our society most effectively. While freedom of speech and academic freedom bear a family resemblance, sharing roots in a respect for human dignity, this distinction in their scope and purpose must be kept in mind.

Academic freedom does not grant to anyone the right to say anything in any context, and it cannot be assumed without accepting corresponding responsibilities. Chief among these is the obligation to respect disciplinary boundaries, to speak only as an expert when one is, in fact, an expert. A physicist doesn’t have the right to publish in a biology journal unless they are doing legitimate biology, as judged by the community of biologists. And if a physicist isn’t producing good physics as judged by their fellow physicists, they have to accept the consequences of that negative judgement. What academic freedom protects is that such professional judgements will be left to one’s disciplinary peers.

Respecting disciplinary boundaries is especially important when the topic is a controversial one. Everyone has the First Amendment right to opine on vaccines, or on the relationship between genes and intelligence. But only an immunologist or someone with similar expertise is protected by academic freedom when they talk about vaccination. Just being a professor of something isn’t sufficient to allow you to talk with authority about anything. Finally, while the discipline confers legitimacy on academic speech, when academics speaks as experts they speak for themselves alone. In this role (although, of course, not in some others), the academic explicitly does not act as the voice or agent of the institution, nor of the state.

This understanding of academic freedom can help us think about one of the thornier questions facing universities today. Namely how do we cultivate an environment in which consequential and controversial issues can be discussed in their full complexity, while simultaneously assuring that this environment is inclusive of the entire community? This challenge is often presented as a direct conflict between freedom of speech on the one hand, and the right to a safe environment on the other. But I maintain that this framing distorts and oversimplifies the situation. The consideration of context is essential, and the university has within it many distinct contexts. A professor speaking within a classroom, on matters about which they have disciplinary expertise, is fully protected by academic freedom, assuming that they have accepted the responsibility to stay within the boundaries of their professional competence. This is entirely different from a visitor who comes to the campus to agitate and provoke, rather than to engage in an academic discussion. Depending on the circumstances, that visitor’s speech may be protected by the First Amendment, but it deserves no special protection or respect merely for occurring on a college campus.  

Of course, there are many difficult cases that fall between these extremes. In considering them, academic freedom and responsibility guide us to these questions: Who is speaking, and from what position of expertise? Is the purpose of the speech genuinely academic, that is, is it based in evidence and open to challenge by disciplinary peers and others? If a speaker comes from outside the institution, who within the university is assuming responsibility that the speech is appropriate to the context, and are they in a position to discharge that responsibility? Put broadly if imprecisely, academic freedom is the freedom of that speech whose purpose is genuinely academic. And by genuinely academic, I mean that it is rooted in, and governed by, fidelity to the academic disciplines.

Academic freedom is foundational to the ethos of the university, and we must be alert and responsive when it is threatened. With that responsibility in mind, I’d like to discuss some recent and very troubling developments in the state of Florida. The consequences of what is happening there will be wide ranging and long lasting and should be of deep concern to all of us.  

The first of these dates back to November 2021, when the University of Florida barred three members of its political science faculty from providing expert testimony in a voting rights lawsuit in which the State of Florida was a defendant. No claim was made that these professors did not possess the appropriate expertise. Rather, the reason given for prohibiting their participation was that in testifying in court, the faculty would be speaking not for themselves but on behalf of the university, and that such speech would be “adverse to the University of Florida’s interests.” After a public outcry, the decision was reversed, but the worrying premise of the objection remains: that an academic at a public institution, speaking as a disciplinary expert, is effectively the voice of the state, and therefore the state has the right to silence them. 

The second is the infamous Stop WOKE Act and subsequent legislation, which have barred faculty (and schoolteachers) from discussing certain “woke” ideas with which the governor and legislature seem to take issue. Lawyers for the State of Florida have said, in court, that the state defines “woke” as “the belief that there are systemic injustices in American society and the need to address them.” If these laws are upheld, this idea will no longer be allowed to be presented in classrooms in Florida. Now, I can’t resist observing that it’s obviously true that there are systemic injustices in American society, but in the spirit of this oration I’ll be careful to say that my observation is based on my own lived experience and the reports of people I know and love, not on disciplinary expertise. I’m not a lawyer, or a sociologist, or a political scientist, or an epidemiologist. But those experts, if they teach at a state-funded institution in Florida, could be charged with a felony for making such a statement of fact in the classroom. And why? Because, the argument goes, in that classroom they are speaking not as independent academics, but rather as voices of the State of Florida. And the State of Florida has the right to tell them what to say.

The third development is the aggressive takeover earlier this year of a small, public liberal arts college, New College of Florida. The governor and legislature appointed a new majority of trustees, most of them from out of state and only one with any prior connection to New College. This new board immediately fired the president and replaced her (at more than twice the salary) with a personal friend of one of the new board members. Trustees have spoken openly of their intention, if possible, to fire the faculty and staff and remake New College explicitly in the image of Hillsdale, a private Christian college located in Michigan. Once again, these draconian steps are justified by the argument that the state government should decide the content of what is taught in classrooms, and that faculty whose loyalty is to their disciplines rather than to the government of Florida should not be permitted to teach at a public institution. The new board’s recent summary rejection of all seven tenure cases presented by the provost does nothing to make one sanguine about their intentions.

The extraordinary claim that lies at the heart of all three of these cases is that the loyalty of faculty must be to the state, and the state may decide what they are permitted to say in the classroom and the courtroom. There is perhaps no idea more antithetical to academic freedom, or to the academy itself. It is certainly a notion favored by history’s authoritarians.

Which brings me back to my father’s story. In January of 1933, Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists were elected as a minority government in Germany. At the time, my father was a young professor at the German School for Politics in Berlin, heading a subunit called the Trade Union School, a three-year course for young trade unionists to study economics, law, and politics. In March, over spring break, he traveled to Austria, and while he was gone there came the Reichstag fire, the banning of other parties, and the establishment of the dictatorship. My father understood that the Nazis would not allow independent academic institutions to persist, that in fact the notion of an independent academic institution was anathema to their conception of the role of the state in society. He never returned to Germany. And by the end of 1933, Joseph Goebbels—Hitler’s newly appointed Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda—had purged and Nazified the German School for Politics. The only faculty who remained were those who were prepared to serve as voices of the Nazi state. 

My father’s story is a chilling reminder of the importance of academic freedom, and a reminder that the destruction of a society’s political freedoms often starts by targeting the universities. Academia, as an institution, is a bulwark against the idea that the state can decide what is acceptable to say, write, and even think. This is why I feel so passionate about the importance of this day and your induction into Phi Beta Kappa. You are honored because you have engaged deeply with this university’s academic mission, and you have benefited fully from the freedom of thought and expression essential to fulfilling that mission. You have studied with faculty whose foundational commitment is to inquiry in their disciplines, and who, as academics, owe allegiance to no other authority. These faculty have come to see you as colleagues, and some of you may well become their peers. But whatever path you take, your membership in Phi Beta Kappa gives you the opportunity and, I would say, the obligation, to defend the academic freedom you have so fully embraced in these years at Harvard. That vital responsibility, not $57 or whatever it is now, is the true price of your new Phi Beta Kappa pin. And with that, I welcome you into our company of scholars. My very warmest congratulations to you all.

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