McGill Must Defend Prof. Salzman and Academic Freedom

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Dear Principal and Vice Chancellor Fortier and the McGill Community,

We write to express our support for Philip Carl Salzman, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology. Some McGill students and student organizations have written an “Open Letter Demanding the Overhaul of McGill’s Statement of Academic Freedom.” This Open Letter’s signatories “demand the removal of Professor Philip Carl Salzman’s Emeritus status”, besmirch Professor Salzman’s reputation and, call for an end academic freedom at McGill University. We urge you to state that you will never remove Professor Salzman’s Emeritus status for exercising his academic freedom. We also urge you to make a public vindication of Professor Salzman’s personal and professional reputation. We further urge you to reaffirm publicly the principles of academic freedom, and to reject the illiberal principles put forth by the Open Letters’ signatories.

The authors of the “Open Letter” single out Professor Salzman for “several articles” he wrote “in the past year.” They focus, however, on one article, “The Middle East: Tribal Culture and Premodern States,” which was also published under the title “The Middle East: What You Need to Know.” 

This article is addressed to the general public, but its content is based on Salzman’s scholarly work in anthropology. The notion of “balanced opposition” among groups is a central concept in anthropological analysis of tribal structure in the Middle East and elsewhere. In the article, Salzman is essentially summarizing a record of some one hundred years of systematic research in the region by historians and social scientists. 

We write to urge you to stand forthrightly to vindicate Professor Salzman, and to vindicate academic freedom, the foundational principles of your university and of all universities.

We urge you to publish a letter that state that you will never remove Professor Salzman’s Emeritus status for exercising his academic freedom, and that vindicates Professor Salzman’s personal and professional reputation. Too many statements by university administrations in support of academic freedom give the impression that they support academic freedom reluctantly. They find it an irksome duty to defend a professor whose views have stirred up dissent among political activists or campus ideologues. They imply that they would certainly never knowingly hire or tenure anyone else who articulates the professor’s beliefs.

These half-hearted defenses chill academic freedom. We therefore urge you to publish a robust vindication of Professor Salzman’s character, stating that he not only has academic freedom to say what he wishes but also has the highest personal and professional character, and has enhanced McGill’s reputation by his association with that university. This is the truth, and McGill should state that truth fearlessly. Professor Salzman’s long years of loyal service to McGill deserve equally loyal conduct by McGill to defend a member of its community under defamatory attack.

We further urge you to publish a letter stating McGill’s wholehearted endorsement of the views on academic freedom so ably stated by the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, which is primarily concerned with academic freedom in Canada. We urge you to state explicitly that in each and every circumstance where academic freedom conflicts with equity, inclusiveness, or any other such policy, that the university will always support academic freedom, without hesitation and without compromise. We further urge you to state explicitly that the principles and the policies articulated in the “Open Letter Demanding the Overhaul of McGill’s Statement of Academic Freedom” contradict academic freedom—indeed, that they contradict freedom, period—that they would disgrace McGill if they were adopted, and that McGill explicitly rejects their premises and their application.

Respectfully yours,