Former Dean of Harvard Medical School Criticizes Brown University’s Actions Regarding Gender Dysphoria Study

At Quillette, former Dean of Harvard’s Medical School Jeffrey Flier provides a scathing review of Brown University’s lack of support for Assistant Professor Lisa Littman and her study of rapid onset gender dysphoria (see my summary of this issue). Setting the stage for his review, Flier makes it clear that this issue is relevant to academic freedom for all:

This week’s controversy surrounding an academic paper on gender dysphoria published by Brown University assistant professor Lisa Littman—brought on by the post-publication questioning of Dr Littman’s scholarship by both the journal that published it, PLOS One, and Brown’s own School of Public Health—raises serious concerns about the ability of all academics to conduct research on controversial topics.

Flier spends the bulk of his article taking apart Brown University’s rationale for removing their press release about Littman’s PLOS One paper.  He then concludes with this stinging call for a defense of academic freedom:

At a time such as this, when a university’s academic mandate is under threat from diverse ideological actors, there is simply no substitute for a strong leader who supports academic freedom and discourse. The dean’s letter raises serious questions about whether the dean of Brown’s School of Public Health is willing to be such a leader.

For centuries, universities struggled to protect the ability of their faculties to conduct research seen as offensive—whether by the church, the state, or other powerful influences. Their success in this regard represents one of the great intellectual triumphs of modern times, one that sits at the foundation of liberal societies. This is why the stakes are high at Brown University. Its leaders must not allow any single politically charged issue—including gender dysphoria—from becoming the thin edge of a wedge that gradually undermines our precious, hard-won academic freedoms.

I certainly agree. There is a process for bringing research to the community of scholars and Littman followed it. Brown’s administrators should stand for the principle of academic freedom by leaving up the press release. The study can easily be criticized but at the same time it is similar to many pilot studies of hidden populations. Unless some kind of academic misconduct is found, Brown University should defend the work of this professor.

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