Chelsea Blackburn Cohen

Chelsea Blackburn Cohen

Dr. Chelsea Blackburn Cohen is Senior Program Officer at Scholars at Risk, where she works with colleges, universities, and associations to promote academic freedom and core higher education values.

Location New York, NY, USA


  • very interesting way to frame this! I especially appreciate what you shared about academic freedom and responsibility. I think it's important to think about it this way, too!

  • Thanks, Robyn! In traditionally more democratic spaces we certainly see the "free speech vs academic freedom" debate play out in a variety of ways, but often leading to the conflation of the two. Aside from the differences between the legal definitions provided earlier in this course, I think it is always important to frame the conversation within the context...

  • Thank you all for this feedback! We are offering this course year-round (as opposed to more limited, short-term runs), so that individuals wishing to access the course materials can do so immediately, though participation and facilitation has less "live" components. We will work to determine the best way to adapt the content to make it more regularly...

  • Welcome, Mitchell!

  • @SandyKinninmonth Thanks! The pressures you describe are represented in some of the more extreme cases you note in your first comment in SAR's Free to Think report - as you know, threats to academic freedom can come from within and outside the institution. But I think it's helpful to be clear about what we are describing when talking about the institution...

  • Hi Sandy, can you clarify what you mean by "The overall effect from the systemic knowledge throughout the academic world of these consequences, is to silence others by subjugation"?

  • Agreed, Eduardo!

  • @SandyKinninmonth Thanks for letting me know - this is the first time we've received this feedback and we will look into it.

  • Hi Sandy, can you share what issues you were having with accessing the exercises?

  • Hi Marie - if interested, you can read more about SAR's reporting on the state dismissal of thousands of academics as a result of signing the 2016 Academics for Peace petition in the 2017 Free to Think Report:

  • Thanks for this Sandy! I think the AUUP Statement of Principles fit with the contemporary or socially-engaged view of academic freedom.

  • Very good questions, Kylie! I hope the course helps address some of these, but I welcome to hear from you throughout the course on these ideas! I'd also be interested to get a better understanding of what you mean by 'academic staff are viewed as acceptable fodder?'

  • Thank you, Elisabeth. If you are interested, you can learn more about Scholars at Risk's response to the evolving crisis in Afghanistan here:

  • Thank you for sharing this experience, and your perspectives, Gill.

  • Welcome everyone to "Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters". My name is Chelsea and I am a Senior Program Officer at the Scholars at Risk Network and a mentor for this course. I am excited to learn with and from you all, and encourage everyone to utilize the comments section for discussion with one another. Like academic freedom itself, at the...

  • Thank you, @JillHind! I look forward to reading more...

  • Hi Maria - we explore "equitable access" in this course

  • Hi Frances - I would be interested in hearing your thoughts about the course as it relates to your role at ISC.

  • I appreciate this discussion. When considering engaging with external programs or partners, an apparent lack of aligned values or academic freedom doesn't necessarily necessitate isolation or estrangement, since learning and knowledge doesn't exist in a vacuum of course. What would seem to be the most important is transparency - transparency about limitations...

  • Thanks, Theresa! Is there a publicly accessible link to view the Code of Ethics?

  • This is pretty common - and then presents challenges when various forms of expression are challenged. Scholars at Risk will be exploring this topic soon in a series of online webinars - please do sign up for our mailing list if you're interested - we'd love to hear your insights.

  • Hopefully they are accessible in a vision, mission or values statement.

  • Hi Jill, can you share more re: your last observation?

  • Thanks for the feedback Wayne! If you have any specific suggestions for making the course more engaging, please do share!

  • Thanks for this Wayne. This certainly rings true where threats to academic freedom are on the more subtle end of the spectrum, but concerning nonetheless.

  • Thanks for this, Bill. Scholars at Risk (SAR) is grateful to have Cara as a partner. If you're interested in reading more about the more extreme infringements, SAR monitors attacks on higher education communities and compiles them into an annual report called Free to Think:

  • This certainly is a trend we can see in many cases where academic expression in challenged.

  • Thanks for pointing this out!

  • I'd find that generally any conduct that is violent or coercive would not be protected by academic freedom nor free expression. This could also be seen as a literal shrinking of the space to share ideas.

  • You're right that the traditional view is much easier to discern where the lines are (line-drawing), so it is much easier to "defend" when conduct is challenged; but on the flip side, the traditional view has limited impact for those who find the mission of the university to be in part for advancing the common good.

  • All very good questions - we take this up further in the course and in many of our staff discussions at SAR. But some important questions to ask when a professor's conduct is challenge on social media: (1) Are they speaking within their area of academic expertise? (2) Is their academic expression aligned with disciplinary / professional norms?

  • I agree Justin - how academic expression is conducted is a critical part of the socially engaged view.

  • Good questions. We'll explore some of this later in the course. At SAR we will often discuss values-related incidents that have occurred on campuses. Sometimes those incidents occur at private, religious institutions Generally, if those institutions are clear and forthcoming about any limitations to inquiry, they can set some limits. However, if they claim...

  • Great observation. The traditional view certainly is easier to defend--and to draw lines--but in the traditional view the extent to which the academy can engage with the public is limited. So much depends on what a particular nation/region, etc. deems as the purpose and role of higher education in society.

  • Welcome to the course, Kristine! You will bring a valuable perspective to this course. Scholars at Risk is based at NYU, too!

  • Welcome, @LatefaGuemar. We're grateful to have you sharing your perspectives in this course.

  • Welcome, Paula!

  • Hi, Pech! At Scholars at Risk we are always eager to have more students engaging in conversations about academic freedom, so I look forward to hearing any suggestions you may have as you continue in the course.

  • Welcome, Annett! I very much look forward to hearing more about your perspectives particularly from your experience in the International Office. Later in this course we'll present a framework for assisting in navigating these types of conversations and considerations, and your input would be most useful!

  • Welcome, Thomas!

  • Great to have you with us, Evgeniya!

  • Welcome everyone to "Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters". My name is Chelsea and I am a Senior Program Officer at the Scholars at Risk Network and a mentor for this course. I am excited to learn with and from you all, and encourage everyone to utilize the comments section for discussion with one another. Like academic freedom itself, at the...

  • Hi Beatrice, thanks for sharing all that your institution is doing. Out of curiosity, can you provide more information about both the 'annual refreshers' and the prizes/awards related to core values? I'd love to learn more about this.

  • A threat to academic freedom would be professors claiming that everything they say and do is protected by academic freedom (for instance, inciting violence). I can see how this may be confusing, but the focus is on what are threats to the utility and practice of academic freedom.

  • What types of threats do you see in your academic context (local, regional, or national)? What values do they implicate?

  • What other responses might be considered that take all five values into account?

  • Hi Beatrice, re: your final question - violence and/or coercion is never protected by academic freedom (or much else for that matter), and academic freedom isn't a protection for those outside academia - that would simply be a freedom of expression issue. Though there are certainly academics who study hate speech and would maybe have more to offer here.


  • @BeatriceGrotto Thanks for your comment and questions! At Scholars at Risk we have heard from thousands of academics from China, Iran and Turkey who have faced persecution and/or prosecution for asking sensitive questions or engaged in critical discourse that was deemed as disloyalty (e.g. Academics for Peace in Turkey). We document much of this in our annual...

  • Thanks for your comment, Abigail. I think this is a good point. Like your example in public health, the value of equitable access may be implicated more frequently in fields such as education finance policy (e.g. school vouchers, financial aid) or applications of the Americans with Disabilities Act (just to name other examples).

  • That's definitely the case! We'll explore this further, but more often than not when an academic freedom issue arises, there are other values implicated, too.

  • Great discussion! I look forward to hearing more from you all throughout the course.

  • Thanks for your question @MarieTaylor. If I am understanding your comment correctly, you are distinguishing between the two views and pointing out the limitations in the traditional view. Both views assume that the "messenger" of the academic expression is the academic themselves, though there certainly are good questions around "who" has academic freedom...

  • Good questions, Sheila. The traditional view certainly gains favor for its clarity - lines are easy to draw and boundaries are easy to understand. But with these types of boundaries and line-drawing, knowledge may be restricted or prevented from accessing environments, communities, industries, etc. where it is needed most to improve society. The contemporary...

  • Interesting question, Sharon! Perhaps when the "academic machinery" is running smoothly, the disciplinary ethical and professional standards/norms are determined by academics in the discipline themselves, which would also include questioning those ethics and standards from time to time.

  • As you aptly suggest, agreed and enforced are separate actions in the policy realm, and while a treaty or standard may be ratified by a nation, enforcement, or even practice, is another issue. We'll explore threats to academic freedom more later in the course, as well as consequences.

  • Can you clarify "freedom of" education? Are you talking about access to education? Academic freedom is a core value to healthy learning communities, as is the principle of equitable access, and while they are related they are distinct concepts. While this course will explore the interrelatedness of core values in higher education, it focuses on academic freedom.

  • "Is knowledge more important than peace?" This is very thought-provoking.

  • Welcome everyone to the 6th run of "Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters". My name is Chelsea and I am a Senior Program Officer at Scholars at Risk. I am excited to learn with and from you all during this course, and encourage everyone to utilize the comments section for discussion with one another; like academic freedom itself, at the heart of...

  • Love your proactive approach to the course, Patrik! I hope you find some of the course elements useful in the future.

  • So glad to have you with us, Sharon!

  • If interested, Safia, I encourage you to check out some of Scholars At Risk's publications:

  • Good question, Adenike. I would love to hear others' thoughts and more about the regional/country context in your example/case here. Are there academic freedom groups active in your area? faculty unions? what types of documents would be useful at your institution, who would need to be open to them, and how would they be received?

  • This is interesting, Laura, and I appreciate the digging you did to find these values elements in so many places! This has given me something to ponder as I'm sure this isn't unusual. I suppose autonomy is more likely a taken-for-granted assumption in an institution's relationship to the state, and typically is under threat from outside the institution, but...

  • Hi Safia - to clarify, academic freedom is seen as harmful? Is this in a statement?

  • @MartinGillham I so appreciate the questions and engagement with the course! Dialogue is what makes learning so valuable - for me anyway!

  • Hi Martin, I tried to dialogue on these points in one of your previous posts, noting the importance of accountability on your final point here.

  • Great questions, Ben, and valuable insight. I think this could be more clear so I appreciate your attention to it. I think this example really emphasizes the importance of ritualizing and harmonizing ALL the core values -- not just academic freedom at the sake of the others. So in your example, while a professor has the right by academic freedom to determine...

  • Thanks, Alice. Can you elaborate on this a bit more?

  • Hi Pete! While we are touching on this now, and in the next segment, you probably won't find this is explored in the detail I think you're looking for -- at least here. Next week will focus more on proactive steps to promote academic freedom and core values.

    That said, this forms the core of the work of Scholars at Risk. We document these attacks in Free...

  • Hi Martin! Academia is scrutinized by outsiders: this is accountability - one of the core values that should be given equal consideration alongside academic freedom. The sector as a whole is facing more scrutiny than ever right now.

    In terms of academia being privileged - are you referring to academics or academia? Academia, defined as an academic...

  • Thanks, Pete. We have the 2019 edition here:

    You also would probably be interested in the Global Public Policy Institute's new Academic Freedom Index - measuring academic freedom in countries around the world:...

  • Thank you so much for sharing this, Alice. This can be particularly tricky. Trying to balance principles of academic freedom with other core values (social responsibility), as well as the safety and well-being of your international colleagues is a difficult but noble task. I feel like this balance is evolving day-by-day, with the internationalization of higher...

  • Yes, true--depending on the circumstances of course--and makes it ever more important, especially now--to make this a public conversation and not an "ivory tower" one. I always welcome and appreciate ideas on this.

  • All very well-taken points. In this respect, we could make all the same arguments about peer review and what knowledge gets transmitted and how it "matters". Big, important questions.

  • Great question, Laura. This really gets to the "who decides" - and that is arguably more important than determining "where the line is". One thing that SAR would love to see at more universities is an Academic Freedom Advisory Committee (or the like), comprised of students, faculty, staff, administrators, etc. who can build (and revise) transparent processes...

  • @AliceKonig Hi Alice, this is something we are passionate about, and we certainly would encourage students to take this online course here (we have several courses utilizing the MOOC currently). At SAR we also work closely with professors at universities in the network to offer what we call Student Advocacy Seminars, where students learn about academic freedom...

  • @benh Apologies - I meant to reference the new Academic Freedom Index - collaborative effort spearheaded by the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi)

  • Thanks for the feedback, Martin, and the suggestions to consider!

  • Just a note to say that I'm interested to see this topic develop over the course. I find that core values such as social responsibility, accountability, and equitable access are taking a major front seat during this global health crisis than they traditionally have (at least in terms of being at-risk).

  • In the era we find ourselves now, it's crucial to consider how the globalization of higher education and advanced learning technologies have changed the stakes of the contemporary / traditional view. In the traditional view, academic freedom would not extend beyond the scholarly forum, and if it were to be contested, how it would be upheld in an online...