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New Jersey could fund gun violence research at Rutgers - once it clears the academic freedom hurdles

Rutgers wants to study gun violence, but there's a potential problem with proposed legislation that would require it to do so. Why the bill is in an academic freedom gray area and what that means.

The Rutgers-Camden campus.
The Rutgers-Camden campus.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

New Jersey lawmakers want Rutgers University to study gun violence, its causes, and how to prevent it.

Rutgers wants to do the same.

So a group of Democratic lawmakers has proposed legislation that would give the university $400,000 to "conduct a comprehensive firearms violence study."

For the lawmakers, it's a way to get important answers on questions of public safety, an issue they see as a crisis. For Rutgers, it's an opportunity to conduct research that can have significant policy and practical impact.

There's just one issue: The legislation is quite specific. So specific that it names the two academic units to study the issue (University Behavioral Health Care, School of Criminal Justice); identifies several topics to be researched (individual and social risk factors, consequences of violence, prevention, "firearms violence as a form of terrorism"); and instructs the university to recruit and train certain kinds of researchers ("experienced investigators in related fields with expertise in firearms violence," postdocs, doctoral students, undergraduates).

For a university, those strict and precise instructions and requirements raise questions about academic freedom — the autonomy of the institution and its faculty to decide how to accomplish its mission, what to study, and how to study it.

"It would be better if the Legislature would just say, 'Here is the money, and it's there if you want to spend it the way you want to spend it,' rather than tell a university what to do with it," said Robert C. Post, a Yale University law professor and expert on academic freedom.

Rutgers supports the bill's general principle and will work with lawmakers to modify problematic portions of it, said Pete McDonough, the school's liaison to the legislature.

State Sen. Troy Singleton (D., Burlington), who introduced the measure, said he was moved to act because the federal government has largely retreated from the issue.

In 1996, Congress passed the Dickey Amendment, which barred the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using its funds for gun-related advocacy. That has widely been interpreted as a ban on CDC research on gun violence. As a consequence, research on the topic essentially ground to a halt.

Gov. Murphy has joined the governors of New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Delaware, and Puerto Rico to work together to address gun violence, including sharing information and conducting research at colleges and universities. His proposed budget includes $2 million for a Center on Gun Violence Research that would be hosted at one of the state's schools. A school has not yet been chosen, and the budget is simply a proposal to the Legislature.

Singleton said the governor's initiative is separate from his proposal, and it's unclear how the two would intersect.

"We're trying to step into the gap that the federal government has left," Singleton said of his bill. "From our perspective, this has become a public health concern."

But it has to be done right, a Rutgers administrator said when the measure was first introduced, raising the issue of academic freedom in a hearing of the Senate Higher Education Committee. This time around, McDonough said, he is hopeful that he can work with lawmakers to avoid placing improper guidelines on university research and setting a bad precedent for future work.

"We're working with both [Assemblyman] Lou Greenwald and Sen. Singleton on amending the bill to make it something that we can actually live with," said McDonough, the university's chief lobbyist. Greenwald, a Democrat from Camden County, introduced the legislation in the  Assembly. "We're fully behind the concept; we just need to tweak it here and there."

Colleges and universities generally have strong principles of academic freedom that protect the autonomy of the school and its faculty. At times, academics have bristled when lawmakers have sought to influence faculty hiring or firing, student admissions, faculty speech or teaching.

Attempts to dictate methods of research should trigger similar objections, Post said. If lawmakers support the research that Rutgers wants to conduct, he said, they could simply allow the university to carry out its work without telling it how to do so.

One point in favor of the bill is that Rutgers won't require specific faculty members to conduct the research, a decision that protects the academic freedom of the school's professors, Post said.

"It's not black and white, it's not saying to a university, 'Reach this conclusion,' or 'Tell faculty members to do this,' or 'Dissolve your ethnic studies department,' or 'Admit these kinds of students'; it's not doing anything like that," Post said. "And yet it's crossing the line where it's making the university an agent of the state — which in some respect it is, but to the degree that it is, it loses its institutional autonomy, and that's a bad thing."

Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director at Philadelphia-based advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the bill doesn't specifically violate academic freedom principles. The biggest issue, he said, is that requiring specific academic departments or schools to study an issue could divert attention and resources from other areas professors would like to research.

"They should be coordinating with Rutgers, hearing out their concerns, and exploring the various options on the table for commissioning the study that they want," he said. "And they might not necessarily want to fall in love with their particular framework in the bill."

Singleton said he had not heard any concerns about academic freedom.

"I don't think that is an issue when it comes to this topic at all. I think we prescribe standards for a whole host of things thanks to our statutory-making process," he said. "Because I've never heard that being raised as a concern, it's hard to really engage in hypotheticals about whether I should be concerned about something I never heard about."

Perhaps the larger issue is that lawmakers don't always understand academic freedom, and administrators haven't always made it clear, said David M. Hughes, an anthropology professor and vice president of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT faculty union.

"I'm sure that the authors of the bill weren't quite aware of those issues — and they can work with the administration to modify it," Hughes said. "This is where I think nationally, administrations of higher education have done an insufficient job about explaining what's distinctive about us."

Consideration of this bill can act as a teaching moment, Hughes said. Lawmakers can work with administrators to fix the problems, as McDonough said they are doing, and next time maybe the lawmakers will have a better understanding of academic freedom, of how universities differ from other state-funded institutions.

After all, it's not like Rutgers doesn't want the money. It just doesn't want all the strings attached.

"We're not going to the wall and saying, 'You can't do this, it's academic freedom!' and all that," McDonough said. "We're going to find a way to make it possible."