Alice Dreger resigned from Northwestern after an article she edited was censored.
When her dean at Northwestern University insisted that Alice Dreger, a professor of clinical medical humanities and bioethics, remove a controversial article from Atrium, an academic journal that she edited, she was gob-smacked.
Because Dreger believes so firmly in academic freedom she decided she could no longer work at Northwestern, and, last August, she quit.
The article in question, by William Peace, was about consensual sex between a nurse and a patient. In her resignation letter, Dreger notes that she was working at the time on a book about academic freedom: “When in early 2014 I learned that my dean had given the order to censor the article, it seemed like a cosmic joke. 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 is a book about academic freedom that focuses on researchers who get in trouble for putting forth challenging ideas about sex.”
Dreger, who is an intersex patient rights activist and sex researcher, will give a talk about academic freedom at noon, March 4, in the Education Building’s Wisconsin Idea Room.
Isthmus spoke with her about her work and her resignation.
What is the central thesis of Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science?
The central thesis is that the pursuit of evidence is a moral imperative in a secular democracy like our own. We have to protect the pursuit of truth — because social policy cannot be sustainable without it — and we also have to protect the pursuit of justice — because people cannot be safe without that. In the end I argue that we should all put the pursuit of evidence before any other ideology, because that is how we best serve each other in the long run.
What prompted you to focus on issues related to intersex individuals?
In graduate school I was interested in gender and science, and one of my dissertation directors suggested I look at the history of people who had been labeled “hermaphrodites” in the 1800s. When I published that work, people who had been born with intersex conditions contacted me and asked me to help them with the intersex patient rights movement. I joined that movement and ended up being one of the leaders of the Intersex Society of North America (now closed). I’ve worked on intersex rights for about 20 years now.
What challenges do intersex people face?
People confuse sex (biology) with gender (how we feel), and think intersex is always an identity when it is really about a biological condition that for some adults is the basis for a political identity. Surgeons think that genital “normalization” is necessary, safe and effective. Families get totally inadequate professional psychosocial support. Endocrinologists and other clinicians engage in risky interventions that are optional without waiting for the patient to grow up and consent to them.
As you may know, Wisconsin removed tenure protections for UW faculty from state law. Is this a threat to academic freedom and, if so, why?
Any time faculty members feel they can lose their title, livelihood, health insurance, home, identity and retirement security because they have upset someone, we have a situation where faculty will work hard to never upset someone. That kind of “safe” research and teaching will lack any shred of daring innovation or challenging inquiry, and will leave the people we mentor (students and junior researchers) in the position of having terrified sheep teaching them how to exist in the world. Terrified sheep are good for neither democracy nor capitalism. America needs tenure.
Would you like to return to academia?
I would only feel safe doing so if I worked at a place that had adopted the Chicago Principles [a free speech policy statement developed at the University of Chicago].