A Strong & Positive Force for Academic Freedom: An Interview with Professor Julia Mahoney

Feb 24, 2023 | Interviews

A Strong & Positive Force for Academic Freedom: An Interview with Professor Julia Mahoney

Conducted and Edited by Howard Muncy

Professor Julia Mahoney is the John S. Battle Professor of Law at the University of Virginia. Professor Mahoney teaches courses about property law, government finance, constitutional law, and nonprofit organizations. In 2021 she was among the original 217 founding members of the Academic Freedom Alliance. I recently interviewed Professor Mahoney to get her thoughts about teaching law in the modern classroom, the University of Virginia, and other matters related to academic freedom and the AFA.

Howard Muncy: Professor Mahoney, you joined the Academic Freedom Alliance as one of the original 217 founding members. What attracted you to the organization and what do you think about the AFA’s first two years of activity?

Julia Mahoney: What drew me to the Academic Freedom Alliance was the chance to work with other college and university professors across the political spectrum to defend academic freedom. I believe that freedoms of thought, inquiry and speech in the academy are essential for knowledge to advance and for democracy to flourish. Over the past decade or so, I have witnessed the steady erosion of these freedoms, in ways both obvious and more subtle. For me, involvement in the AFA is a welcome opportunity to do my part to help fix this.

While it is too early to say that the AFA has turned back the tide, it seems to me that in just two years the AFA has made a real difference. Starting with its swift defense in March 2021 of University of San Diego Law School Professor Tom Smith, the target of an investigation by his employer for a blog post criticizing China’s government in vivid terms, the AFA has consistently stood up for faculty under fire. The long and growing list of faculty members who have received substantial help from the AFA attests to the organization’s ability to execute its mission of protecting the ability of professors to write, teach and speak.

The AFA has also exerted a strong and, in my view, salutary influence on public debates relating to academic freedom. Its guidance on mandatory diversity statements and “divisive concepts” policies that may inhibit open discussions of sensitive topics have been particularly constructive, I think, setting a tone of measured consideration and honest analysis.

HM: Currently the AFA has more than 700 members. Well over 100 of them, approximately 20 percent of the entire membership, teach or have taught in law schools across the United States. Do you think that law professors are just naturally inclined to be interested and active in protecting rights in the classroom? Or are there major threats to academic freedom occurring in law schools that account for this large number?

JM: It comes as no surprise to find law professors in the thick of battles over academic freedom. By training and temperament, lawyers are systematic thinkers who understand the benefits—both short-term and long-term—of free inquiry and open discussion for college and university communities as well as for society at large. Law professors are also, by and large, highly attuned to threats to individual rights. Another reason, I suspect, that teachers of law make up such a large percentage of the AFA’s membership is that they tend to be more acclimated to conflict than is the typical academic and thus more comfortable joining an organization that takes public positions on hot topics.

All that said, it is plausible that part of the explanation for the heavy presence of law teachers in the AFA lies in what is going on in law schools right now. I’m struck by how many of what I regard as the most perturbing refusals to defend academic freedom have taken place in law school communities. One might expect law school administrators to rank among the strongest advocates of freedoms of thought and expression, but unfortunately that appears not to be the case. My hope is that the activities of the AFA and other organizations with missions relating to academic freedom will encourage law school administrators to show more fortitude in the face of pressures to squelch open debate or to punish community members for articulating unpopular ideas.

HM: Can you describe any specific trends or actions that you have observed in recent years that have affected your approach in the classroom? Perhaps more simply, have you changed your courses or instructional methods due to the current environment?

JM: I have not significantly modified the content of my courses or how I conduct my classes. I have always selected readings with an eye toward ensuring that students are exposed to a wide range of points of view, never shying away from assigning pieces likely to elicit controversy. By the same token, I have always done my best to encourage substantive, respectful class discussions in which all participants grapple with hard and novel ideas. I see these practices as so essential to the educational mission that I would regard it as a dereliction of my duty as a professor to depart from them. I do, however, choose my words with greater care than I did when I began teaching roughly a quarter century ago.

Where I have made the biggest adjustment is in taking account of what I see as an increased hesitancy on the part of students to take bold stances. These days I spend more time articulating potential arguments, especially ones that might be thought offensive or even just a bit edgy, instead of inviting students to make them.

HM: How strong is the commitment to academic freedom at the University of Virginia?

JM: In theory, the University strongly supports free expression and inquiry. In 2021, it set up a Committee on Free Expression to articulate this commitment. In due course the Committee issued a well-publicized “Statement,” which was in turn endorsed by the Board of Visitors, the President, and the Provost, affirming that “all views, beliefs, and perspectives deserve to be articulated and heard free from interference.” The University Faculty Senate recently issued its own resolution in support of academic freedom, spurred by concerns that government proposals in Virginia and other states threaten to constrain faculty authority to discuss racism and related issues in American history.

In actuality, though, there are problems with UVA’s intellectual and social climate. Fourth-year Emma Camp lamented in a March 2022 New York Times op-ed that her “college experience has been defined by strict ideological conformity,” as students of “all political persuasions hold back — in class discussions, in friendly conversations, on social media — from saying what we really think.” And a number of faculty members, including me, have been met with administrative indifference or even outright hostility when trying to organize heterodox programs and events.

The question, of course, is what can be done at UVA to nurture free inquiry and expression. Several recent positive developments give me hope for UVA’s future. First, the University’s already active chapter of the Heterodox Academy is raising its profile on campus by sponsoring more events designed to expose students to a wide variety of ideas. Second, there is a new initiative called Think Again, which aims, in the words of its mission statement, “to protect and promote what’s best about UVA and university life anywhere — by asserting the foundational values of free speech, academic freedom, civil discourse, and viewpoint diversity.” Think Again has already put on several well-attended events, including a panel discussion on how best to bring to life the 2021 “Statement” issued by the Committee on Free Expression. Finally, this spring marks the launch of the Blue Ridge Center, a stand-alone organization separate from the University led by UVA Professor of Politics Gerard Alexander. The Blue Ridge Center’s mission is to help students thrive by increasing intellectual diversity at UVA. concerned students, faculty, alumni, and other members of the Charlottesville community.

HM: Any final comments or thoughts about your hopes for the future of academic freedom?

JM: Academic freedom is under sustained assault and it will take more than a single organization to address all the problems we now confront. One reason the AFA is off to such a strong start, I believe, is that it has been scrupulous about sticking to its well-crafted and well-defined mission. I expect the AFA will continue to be a strong, positive force for academic freedom and that its work will be complemented by that of other groups and individuals.

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