May Their Number Increase: An Interview with Director Flynn Cratty about Academic Freedom

Aug 29, 2023 | Interviews

May Their Number Increase: An Interview with Director Flynn Cratty about Academic Freedom

Conducted and edited by Howard Muncy

Flynn Cratty is a historian of early modern Europe at Harvard University where he is Executive Director of the Council on Academic Freedom, Associate Director of the Human Flourishing Program, and Lecturer on History. He is a graduate of Duke University (B.A.), Southern Seminary (M.Div.), and Yale University (M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D.). Director Cratty is also a member of the Academic Freedom Alliance. In this recent interview I was able to get his thoughts about the activity of the AFA, his roles in the formation of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard and in assisting with the development of the newly minted Princeton Principles, as well as about concerns in the field of history. 

Howard Muncy: In this interview series, we have typically begun each installment with the question “Why did you join the Academic Freedom Alliance and what are your thoughts about the organization’s activity so far?” Now that the organization is approaching 3 years of existence and has grown to include over 800 scholars, I would like to pose this question to you since you are one of our newer members who joined the AFA in early July, 2023.

Flynn Cratty: I finished undergrad in 2004 but didn’t start my PhD until 2012. The academia I entered then felt different than the one I’d left behind years earlier. And then came Trump, Me Too, George Floyd, a string of controversial Supreme Court decisions… The cultural pot had been moved from simmer to high heat. The consequences for academic freedom have been bad. We are all familiar with the high-profile cases in which speakers are deplatformed or scholars are fired. But for every one of those, there are a thousand cases of open intimidation and countless cases in which students or professors decide it is best to keep their mouths shut. I became a historian because I think the truly good life requires the courageous pursuit of truth. If our universities are places that intimidate people for asking difficult questions, they are nothing more than credentialing rackets. I joined the Academic Freedom Alliance because I’m eager to ally with other scholars who share my commitment to protecting free inquiry. It has been greatly encouraging to see it grow so quickly!

HM: You have been very active in promoting, participating in, and pursuing efforts to protect academic freedom over the course of this year.  We should probably start with your role in the formation of the Council of Academic Freedom at Harvard University, a group that you serve as Executive Director.  What were the steps in bringing that group together and what has the reception been at the campus level as well as in broader academia since the April 2023 launch?  Any early actions that you can point to?

FC: The Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard emerged somewhat unexpectedly. In October of 2022, I emailed a group of Harvard faculty members to invite them to an informal dinner to talk about the state of free expression at Harvard. I was concerned by conversations I’d had with students about their difficulty in having frank conversations on campus, so I thought it would be good to get a group together to talk. Some of the people on the invitation list were friends of mine, but I also emailed other Harvard scholars with a reputation for caring about speech on campus. I found some of them on the AFA membership list! The conversation at dinner was candid. I was surprised by how much unanimity there was about the need to work together. As dessert was served, I said something like, “It sounds like we should start a Council on Academic Freedom” and was greeted with a chorus of approval. So that’s what we did. That first group put together a mission statement and started inviting colleagues who shared our commitments to free inquiry, civil discourse, and intellectual diversity. At present, we have more than 130 members with representatives from each of Harvard’s schools. We are putting on events this fall and plan to push Harvard to adopt a robust statement on academic freedom. In our first few months of existence, we have also had the opportunity to advise multiple Harvard professors who have been investigated over speech. We have also been talking to faculty at more than a dozen other institutions who are interested in doing something similar. I think it is likely that several other faculty councils will launch this year.

HM: Another group and experience that I want to discuss are the scholars who came together this spring to draft the Princeton Principles for a Campus Culture of Free Inquiry.  This group included several AFA members who worked on producing the set of guidelines and standards.  The James Madison Program at Princeton University released the draft less than a month ago.  What was that process like, what was the fundamental goal, and what are your hopes for the principles? 

FC: It was a real privilege to be involved with the group that issued the Princeton Principles in particular because it included a number of senior scholars—people like Donald Downs and Alan Kors—who have been leading the fight for academic freedom for decades. The goal of the group was to produce an update to the Chicago Principles. Don wrote an initial draft, the rest of us provided copious comments that were consolidated into the end result. To my mind, the great strength of the Princeton Principles is the way they ground academic freedom in the mission of the university.

It is hard to predict how they’ll be used. As a historian I can say that the one iron law of history is that nobody ever sees the future coming. But I think they will provoke debate about the mission of the university and the place of academic freedom in that mission.

HM: I would like to turn to your scholarly expertise for the next question.  You hold the position of Lecturer on History at Harvard.  What are some of the largest concerns regarding academic freedom in the discipline of history?

FC: The battles over history are never really about history. They’re about the present. It isn’t a coincidence then that quarrels over history have intensified in recent years as the broader culture has divided into suspicious ideological camps. There is a very human temptation to expect history to confirm our own biases. The problem is that good history rarely works well as a cudgel we can use to bash our political enemies. It’s just too complex and unwieldy. As a result, lots of people create selective histories, plucking some bits of evidence from the historical record and ignoring others. A friend recently told me that her child’s elementary school teacher began a lesson on the first four US presidents by saying, “Now we have to talk about these four sad, old white guys and what they did to our country.” That’s absurd. The opposite statement— “Now we are going to talk about four heroic men who could do no wrong”—would be equally so. Intellectual integrity requires that we try to understand the past as it really was, but sometimes our immediate political needs seem too pressing.

I am somewhat insulated from the current battles over America’s past since I study and teach early modern European history. Not many Americans are ready to draw daggers about Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. But it shapes the whole profession when, for example, the President of the American Historical Association is forced to issue a groveling apology for criticizing the 1619 Project.

HM: Many of the participants in this series, as well as most of our AFA members overall, have held positions as researchers and scholars for decades.  As someone on the front end of their career, what is your outlook on the future of academic freedom?  Specifically, I think our readers would benefit from any perspective that you may provide that shows a growing strength or momentum in the value of academic freedom for the new generation of professors. 

FC: Academic freedom is a bit like democracy. It must always be contended for. But I am optimistic about its future, in large part by the abundance of organizations popping up all over the place to fight for it. In addition to big national organizations like the AFA or FIRE, we have faculty organizations like the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard and the alumni groups associated with the Alumni Free Speech Alliance. Some brave undergraduates are starting to organize as well. I think the number of administrators willing to publicly defend academic freedom is growing as well. May their number increase!

HM: Anything else that you would like to add about academic freedom? 

FC: One last comment. Academic freedom is essential, but we also need to talk about academic virtues. Procedural protections for speech are only essential, but they won’t do much if they’re not accompanied by courage, patience, a willingness to listen, and the like.

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