Alice Dreger's Letter of Resignation at Northwestern

Last month, AcademeBlog reported on the controversy involving Northwestern professor Alice Dreger and reprinted Dreger’s own blog about censorship of sexual content at Northwestern. Yesterday, Dreger resigned from Northwestern in protest. Here is the full text of her resignation letter:

Monday, August 24, 2015

Provost Daniel Linzer

Northwestern University

633 Clark Street

Evanston, IL 60208-1101

Dear Dan, It is with a sense of deep sadness and frustration that I write to resign my position as Professor of Clinical Medical Humanities and Bioethics, effective August 31, 2015. I have enjoyed a memorable and productive decade at Northwestern University. So much good has come from this position, for me and for the people I have tried to help through my work. I will always be grateful to my students and colleagues at Northwestern as well as to the librarians and administrators (including you) who for many years supported my work.

When in early 2014 I learned that my dean, Eric Neilson, had given the order to censor Bill Peace’s article in the issue of Atrium that I edited, it seemed like a cosmic joke, or perhaps a publicity stunt being arranged by Penguin Press. I was doing the final fact-checking, lawyering, and page-proofing of Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science, which, as you know, is a book about academic freedom that focuses particularly on researchers who get in trouble for putting forth challenging ideas about sex. I could not believe my own dean would censor an article because it recounted a consensual blowjob between a nurse and a patient in 1978.

Compounding this abuse was the subsequent institution of what we in the program called “the censorship committee”—a new “editorial” committee formed to thereafter approve all content of Atrium, a committee including representatives of the dean’s office and the PR department. Katie Watson, editor-in-chief of Atrium, had one meeting with this group and appropriately decided “no more.”

Although remaining publicly silent on a serious case of censorship made me feel like an abject hypocrite, I stayed quiet about the censorship and the formation of the censorship committee for as long as I did out of fear for my program colleagues’ jobs. None ever told me that she or he was afraid for her or his own job, but they frequently mentioned being worried for the jobs of others in the program, and suggested we had better not anger Dean Neilson further.

Nevertheless, when Kristi Kirschner moved to resign over this issue in late 2014, I found myself distraught at the thought of losing her. At that point, in December of 2014, I met with Vice Dean for Education Diane Wayne and Vice Dean for Academic Affairs Bill Lowe. The meeting was positively Orwellian, and I gave up and left after only 20 minutes. After I explained to them that I had a major book coming out on academic freedom, and that I was being put in an untenable position with respect to the censorship of Atrium, their only response was “congratulations on your book.” I made clear that if they restored Atrium in full, I would stay quiet about the censorship, but that otherwise I could not stay quiet forever. They made clear they intended to “monitor” Atrium. They said that work they paid for was work they could control, but had no answer to my follow-up questions about whether that meant I should run all of my journal article manuscripts, book manuscripts, op-ed manuscripts, and even potential blogs and tweets past them.

In April of this year, you kindly invited me to meet with you to talk about my book, which had been published the month before. I took the opportunity to discuss the censorship of Atrium with you, and we had a follow-up email exchange. But nothing changed. A month later, Bill Peace and I had had enough, and I told Diane Wayne we were going public. She responded, “At the current time we have no objection to Katie reposting the prior published Atrium issues on the humanities and bioethics website.” Disgusted that the fear of bad publicity was apparently the only thing that could move this institution to stop censorship, and wondering what “at the current time” was supposed to mean, Bill Peace and I finally decided to go public.

Thereafter, on May 26, 2015, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to President Morton Schapiro and Dean Neilson to object to what had happened. FIRE told me that universities almost always respond to their letters, but I predicted Northwestern would not. Sadly, I was right.

In recent weeks, I have appealed to you to acknowledge the censorship and to assure me it will not happen again. What I got in response from you on August 12 was this statement:

I have discussed academic freedom, in general, and Atrium, specifically, with the Dean of the Medical School. Both he and I assure you of the importance of academic freedom, and that the University and the Medical School take very seriously our commitment to academic freedom in terms of the publication of a journal that we have agreed to publish. Indeed, when the editor of Atrium requested that the back issues be made available again online, reversing that editor’s previous decision, those issues were immediately restored to the web site.

The ongoing publication of any journal depends on a number of factors that are quite distinct from academic freedom. The approval and support of the Medical School or the University for publication of a journal that bears the institution’s name would depend on the publication making a significant contribution to our educational and scholarly mission. Other considerations are if faculty are actively involved as editors and writers so that the journal really represents the efforts of the University, and if the journal’s readership and impact are substantial enough to justify the expense and effort of production and distribution. The decision of an institution whether or not to publish a particular journal in no way restricts individual faculty from publishing their academic work in other suitable journals.

I found this very disappointing. In point of fact, the suggestion that Katie Watson was to blame for the censorship of the journal—when she clearly acted in fear in response to Dean Neilson’s order—is misleading, unfair, and insulting. It places responsibility on the wrong person and evades the institution’s responsibility for the censorship.

What happened here had nothing to do with an institutional decision whether to fund some new proposed journal in the future. In this instance, Dean Neilson gave the order to censor an already-published article in an ongoing journal, an article that had been peer-reviewed, prior to publication, by multiple Medical Humanities and Bioethics faculty members, including Kristi Kirschner, Kathryn Montgomery, and me.

The plain and simple fact is that Dean Neilson acted impulsively and wrongly in this situation. We all make mistakes, but this was a profound mistake that cut to the very heart of academic freedom. It should have been acknowledged and corrected immediately. That is most definitely not what happened. Instead, what happened was denial, avoidance, blame-shifting, and evasion. To this day, the university has not admitted its mistake, and it has not affirmed its commitment to academic freedom in a way that makes clear that similar incidents will not occur in the future. This failure should be embarrassing to an otherwise great university.

As a consequence, I now find myself in the painful position of having to choose between the work I do—which has been and presumably always will be high-risk and controversial—and loyalty to my colleagues, who are reasonably afraid that my work might further irritate the dean in the future, with unpredictable consequences for them and for our program. I cannot continue to work in such circumstances and in such an institution. Vague statements of commitment to the principle of academic freedom mean little when the institution’s apparent understanding of academic freedom in concrete circumstances means so little. Hence, my resignation.

As you know, because you were kind enough to read it, my most recent book, on academic freedom, was made possible because I came to Northwestern University. It happened because, as I took on one controversial issue after another—first the Bailey transsexualism controversy, then the Chagnon/Tierney fiasco in American anthropology, then the prenatal dexamethasone intervention disaster—university leaders defended my academic freedom when they received often sharp criticisms of my work. Time and again, my academic freedom was protected by Northwestern University. Northwestern University enabled me to work effectively and confidently, for a full decade, in the service of the disempowered and the wronged. For that, I am deeply grateful.

But I no longer work at that institution. I no longer work at a university that fearlessly defends academic freedom in the face of criticism, controversy, and calls for censorship. Now, I work at a university at which my own dean thinks he has the authority to censor my work. An institution in which the faculty are afraid to offend the dean is not an institution where I can in good conscience do my work. Such an institution is not a “university,” in the truest sense of that word.

Thank you for engaging with me about this matter. I do appreciate that, as well as the support you gave me over the years. I will miss working for the real Northwestern University very much.


Alice D. Dreger, Ph.D.

Professor of Clinical Medical Humanities and Bioethics

40 thoughts on “Alice Dreger's Letter of Resignation at Northwestern

  1. H’m. IS there a line that a reasonable person might suggest was crossed here? I mean, “a consensual blow job…”? Frankly, I can see some people being… well, mind-blown (mind-jobbed?) at seeing this in an academic discussion. No?

    • No. Certainly, anyone is free to criticize the journal, its decision-making, and its articles. The question is, should the university be suppressing these articles, and creating a censorship board to monitor the propriety of content in a medical journal? Actually, analysis of sexual activity is common in medical discussions as well as many other fields. Would you ban academic journal articles about novels that discuss this subject? There should be no topics banned from academic discussion.

  2. Of concern for those of us working in medical humanities and health studies is that our publications might be appropriated by the institution as part of its “brand.” While there’s no question that our institutions often claim bragging rights about our products, this seems to have crossed another line. It represents the corporatization of higher education about which AAUP has been so diligent in warning us.

    • The corporatization of your institutions occurred a long time ago, when you allowed your Administrators to become an embedded bureaucracy. Your academic freedom threatens the bureaucracy’s bread and butter and they protect their own.

      Good luck getting that Genie back into the bottle.

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  4. One has to wish one had Dean Nielsen’s side of the story. What would make a distinguished academic behave like that?

    Here’s his C.V., according to Northwestern:
    … and the news bulletin announcing his appointment:

    The latter contains the following paragraph, which highlights talents which may have most endeared him to the search committee:

    Dr. Neilson comes from Vanderbilt University, where he chaired the Department of Medicine from 1998 to 2010. He led the largest department at Vanderbilt through a growth strategy that helped triple the size of the medical center into a $2.4 billion enterprise. Under his departmental leadership, clinical practice revenues increased almost 300 percent, research funding from the National Institutes of Health increased to $135 million, and the department’s faculty grew from 270 to nearly 650. As chair, Dr. Neilson nurtured an active gifts and giving program and tripled the department of medicine’s endowment. In 2010, Dr. Neilson was awarded the Robert H. Williams Award from the Association of Professors of Medicine for outstanding leadership as the chair of an academic department of internal medicine.

    Of course, that is not really a paragraph about a successful academic. That is a paragraph about a successful tycoon.

    Even the most socialist of societies and corporations (such as universities) need successful tycoons. But I am not sure I would put a tycoon in charge of press he doesn’t like.

    I don’t fancy being discharged, so I shall be pseudonymous.

    • That’s great to hear! It has gotten stellar reviews so I don’t think you will be disappointed. And it is the book that forced me to live up to my principles and quit when my administration would not admit and fix the censorship. (Books are like children; you have to be who they would want you to be.)

    • I think clarity and brevity are key elements to consider. More context on the reason it was part of the article would make such a judgement easier. Genital stimulation can be performed by many body parts and does not specify whom is being stimulated.
      Now, I can think of more vulgar ways to express the act, but consensual is the key word, the nurse and the patient both knew what was going on and apparently had no issues. If the magazine publishing considered it appropriate, I think the university administrators (what exactly do they get paid for anyway?) should defer to the editor’s judgement as to what is appropriate and what is not.

  5. Pingback: Academic Freedom Update: Northwestern Professor Resigns Over Censorship Concerns | Choirpundit

  6. Meh. You spout on and on about censorship, but you really don’t get it.
    You, as the editor, ‘censor’ all the time-you make editorial decisions about what gets published (And what doesn’t-what gets ‘censored’), you make editorial decisions regarding style, perhaps some of the phrasing, editing for length, appropriateness, etc.

    In this instance, your dean (i.e. your boss) overruled your ‘censorship’ decisions and decided to impose his own (as you have done with each submission that came to the magazine).

    You are free to not like it, but drop the academic freedom jargon. Magazines are written, and editorial decisions are made all the time as to what is published in those magazines. In this instance, your decisions were overruled by someone higher in the hierarchy-just as happens in every job in existence.

    If you want to talk about blowjobs, there are plenty of magazines that will let you (and plenty of magazines that won’t). Atrium happens to be one of the magazines that won’t.


    • That’s an important distinction, one too few understand. Also, the dean is interfering in an editorial structure he was not involved in before–changing the rules in the middle of the game, so to speak.

      There’s also an important analogy with journalism here. Once there was a “firewall” between the editorial side and the business side, and the best American journalism we’ve ever seen resulted. Now, that wall is gone, as journalism succumbed to the corporate business model of everything coming from the top down. That model has been migrating to academia, too, and will probably result in the same disastrous slide that journalism has experienced.

      So, good for you, Alice Dreger! We all need to be working to stop this sort of intrusion and you are leading the way.

  7. My main beef in censorship discussions is the elephant in the room (ok, make it a naked elephant to jazz things up): everyone believes in censorship; the arguments are about where to draw the lines.
    I’m pretty sure most here defending absolute academic freedom would not support research on the harms of abortion, or challenging the contemporary conventional wisdom on sexual identity and preference, or one conventional ideas on evolution or climate change; or, perhaps, on why adult/child sex might be the way to go.
    Those barking loudest for total academic freedom and against “all” censorship would simply label research with which they disagree as “unscientific” and kill it.
    It would make for a more useful discussion and debate if everyone admitted they do believe in censorship of some kind and then bat around what should or should not be censored and why.
    Probably a pipe dream; because as a culture, especially it seems, in the academy, we’ve lost the ability to reason well, to debate, to make cogent arguments. We are left with bald assertions of political power or cant, demanding rights and privileges while denying the same to others who are “wrong” politically or religiously or culturally.

    • I’m always amused by this type of argument: conservatives who say that censorship of liberals for, say, writing about sex is justified because some liberals censor conservatives. What exactly is the moral principle of “everybody censors”? That censorship is okay because somebody else has been censored? I think I qualify as one of those barking loudest for absolute academic freedom, and I would support the right to do research advocating all of those things you mention. It is true that some research I disagree with is “unscientific”–not because I disagree with it, but because it is. And unscientific research shouldn’t be rewarded with hirings and promotions. But it shouldn’t be suppressed by administrative fiat, either. And that’s what we’re talking about here: should the administration be able to censor research simply because it offends public opinion, and appoint administrators to control and censor a faculty journal? That’s the elephant in the room, not the imaginary straw elephant you are creating.

      • an “imaginary straw elephant”…..
        as opposed to a REAL straw elephant?
        It would help in an academic discussion if you could write sense.
        And what a little mess of prejudices you must be. Who told you I’m conservative?
        You prove my point. You believe in censorship, too. It’s just that it’s only OK when you get to be the censor.
        I’m guessing you’re wearing jackboots right now. And nothing else. Alone in the room with a naked elephant.
        A REAL naked elephant.

        and to talk about straw-man arguments…. way to slip in the ” simply because it offends public opinion”… reduce an opponent’s argument to “real stoopid,” and then dismiss it.
        I’m pretty sure your opponents’ argument in this case is more than “simply because…”
        And that’s my point.
        You don’t, won’t or can’t, oppose censorship with any arguments, it appears. All you can do is assert your will like a 5-year-old throwing a tantrum: “You’re not the boss of me.”
        Which of course they are, I suppose, in many cases.
        So learn to make an argument to battle censorsip, don’t just pout that you can do what you want, including censoring others because, well, you know better.

        And how tired and condescending is that trope…..”It always amuses me……”
        You’re not amused. You haven’t been amused since 1975.
        and then you were stoned. Real stoned. Not an imaginary strawman stoned.
        Hay, man.
        I’m against college administrators as much as anyone.
        But they have certain rights and duties of censorship as nearly everyone does, so it gets down to cases.

        • “Imaginary straw elephant” makes perfect sense, which is why it annoyed you so much. There’s a long literary tradition of the imaginary elephant and the straw man, and combining them is a clever way of emphasizing why your “everybody censors” argument is wrong. I called this argument “conservative” because you (wrongly) claimed that all liberals would censor any anti-abortion, anti-evolution, anti-climate change research. If there’s a good reason to ban discussion of oral sex from medical journals other than “it offends people,” no one has explained why yet. I made a clear and substantive argument that “everybody censors” is both inaccurate and lacks a guiding principle for protecting free speech, and you won’t engage it. I’ll let the readers decide for themselves which of us is having a childish tantrum here.

  8. “should the administration be able to censor research simply because it offends public opinion, and appoint administrators to control and censor a faculty journal?”

    That depends. Does the University own the journal? If so, they should be able to print (or not print) whatever they desire. They may be douchebags for doing it, but it is their right, and not an abridgment of your freedom. Publish the work somewhere else.

    However, if they demand that you pull a paper from another journal, and they own neither the contents of the paper nor the journal, then I believe your accusations against academic freedom are warranted.
    Do I support Prof. Dreger’s act of resignation? Sure. It sounds like she and the bureaucracy with whom she worked were not well suited. Was it a bold strike against censorship and opponents of academic freedom. Ehh, not so much…

    • Here’s the problem with the ownership argument: the university also owns the classrooms, and many places are starting to argue that they own the research that faculty do. If ownership is everything, if only the people with the money have freedom, then academic freedom is gone. If a university can require prior review and censorship of the journal you edit, why can’t they do the same for your research and your teaching? The fundamental principle behind academic freedom is that ownership should not be control, and that’s what makes the academy different from a corporation.

      • “If a university can require prior review and censorship of the journal you edit, why can’t they do the same for your research and your teaching?”
        The answer is, in short, that technically they can unless it is contractually outlined that they can’t. Is ownership “everything”? Dunno. But it definitely means “something”. If you can’t control what you own, then you don’t really own it.

        The fundamental principle of academic freedom is that it is based on an general agreement that academics will not be persecuted or fired because they hold and express unpopular views.
        That in no way requires the University to propagate those views in their own publication, and that is the rub. Prof. Dreger was not fired nor, as far as I can tell, persecuted for her writings. The university simply chose not to put her writings in their publication. Their reasoning may be unsound, but that is their right. I hope that the professor finds a new publisher and a work environment that she finds supportive to her needs.

      • Satires: That is a fairly narrow view of academic freedom — there are many ways to abridge academic freedom apart from firing someone. Some of us like the new statement from the University of Chicago, which includes the general principle:

        “Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. … [I]t is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”

  9. I don’t see this as censorship or a violation of academic freedom. Nor is this prior restraint. No one has a right to contribute anything she wants to any publication she chooses. Any institution has a right to impose standards upon or edit a product with its name on it.

    If the university were attempting to prevent the professor from standing on the quad and saying whatever she wants, or saying whatever she wants in class, publishing her own blog, then that would be censorship. There will always be gray areas; to say that any imposition of standards on a university publication (such as those surrounding language) is by definition censorship takes that concept a bit too far.

    • I agree completely. This story was a personal essay, not original research. This is a disagreement about standards and language, not censorship. If I’m reading the article correctly, Ms. Dreger seems to feel she is being abused and persecuted because others objected to a relatively graphic description of a blowjob. Reasonable minds may actually differ on this subject. Everyone who disagrees with you is not wrong. You don’t actually have the right to publish whatever you feel like in someone else’s magazine. Feel free to resign and publish somewhere else where you don’t have to tolerate such “abuse.”

      • “If I’m reading the article correctly, Ms. Dreger seems to feel she is being abused and persecuted because others objected to a relatively graphic description of a blowjob.”

        I believe you are reading the article incorrectly. Dr. Dreger objects to the demand that the journal be subject to censorship from the Dean. I suspect that Dr. Dreger is well aware of, and perhaps even celebrates, the fact that some readers find this or that article objectionable. I doubt that Atrium exists to feed anyone’s complacency. I am familiar with Dr. Dreger’s other work, and it would surprise me to find that she feels “abused and persecuted” by mere objections. I hesitate to speak for her — since I see that is reading this forum — but my guess would be that if she feels abused and persecuted it is because she was abused and persecuted.

  10. It would help to know the original intent, or mission of the publication in question in this discussion. Who funded it and why? Was it funded to serve as a endowment raising tool by showcasing the cutting edge research capabilities of the university when making pitches to foundations and philanthropists? Or perhaps it was funded to provide an outlet for scholars to stimulate and advance knowledge in the field. In the first case language nuances, say those that could be interpreted as vulgar, likely would matter. In the second case they wouldn’t. The provost was making this point to the professor in his response to which she took exception. The mistake on the part of the administration in all of this was not being clear about the intent of the publication. Also, a distinguished scholar like Dr. Dreger would never do for an unserious public relations showcase tool. What’s more a responsible scholar is bound to object to any involvement in a publication’s content by administrators not steeped in the subject matter.

  11. “This was an already-published piece pulled on order of the dean. That is censorship, not editorial license.”

    “That’s an important distinction, one too few understand.”

    No, its not an important distinction-something that too few academics understand.
    In essence, it is an extremely narcissistic distinction (“I can make editorial decisions as much as I want. But once I have made a decision, it is final, and immoral to overrule it”. An extremely convenient philosophy).

    Whoever has ultimate decionmaking authority in an organization is the one responsible for making that decision. Whether he does so frequently or infrequently ( “Also, the dean is interfering in an editorial structure he was not involved in before–changing the rules in the middle of the game, so to speak.”) is also irrelevant.

    Alice thought (or presumed) she had ultimate decisionmaking authority. She was mistaken. The ultimate decisionmaking authority overruled her. That’s what a bureaucracy/hierarchy is, by definition.

    Alice (and too many academics) thought that as an academic, she had no boss, and was not a member of a hierarchy. She (and too many academics) was mistaken about that as well.

    IF Alice had, instead of publishing medical articles in Atrium, had decided to publish articles on Bridge Engineering or Mesopotamian pottery, she would (I imagine) be overruled. This would not be censorship.

    Had Alice committed herself to publishing a legitimate, perfectly acceptable article in Atrium, but rewritten in pig latin (“Linical-Cay Mpacts-Iay f-oay Epression-Day”) and was overruled, that would not be censorship. It wouldn’t matter when she was overruled.

    The editor of Highlights Magazine (a children’s magazine), I would imagine, has pretty broad authority, and his superiors probably rarely interfere with his decisions. If he decided to publish an article about blowjobs, I’d imagine he would be, justifiably, overruled.

    I receive an alumni magazine every month from my university. It is full of feelgood articles about University accomplishments and research. The editor, as long as he is doing a good job, is no doubt given a great deal of latitude about editorial decisions. If he decided to publish an article about blowjobs, and was overruled, it would not be censorship-it would be a simple case of being overruled by a superior.

    If Alice does not like the hierarchy or organization of the position for which she was hired (and apparently, she doesn’t) it makes perfect sense to resign-she is not given the authority she wanted or expected in her job, and is not given the freedom to take Atrium in the direction she wants to take it. Most human beings feel that way, and some of us even resign over it. But making an editorial decision contrary to a subordinate’s editorial decision is not censorship.


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