Over 200 CMU faculty and staff sign open letter voicing concern over controversial hire | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Over 200 CMU faculty and staff sign open letter voicing concern over controversial hire

Earlier this month, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) was met with backlash from students after the school announced it had hired Richard Grenell, former ambassador to Germany and former acting Director of National Intelligence, as a senior fellow in the Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS). Now, over 250 faculty, staff, and Ph.D. candidates have signed an open letter to the school's administration voicing their concerns over Grenell's hiring.

Grenell previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Germany from 2018-20 and as the acting Director of National Intelligence from Feb.-May 2020. Both positions were appointed by President Donald Trump. The open letter addresses concerns about Grenell's affiliation with CMU citing his past opinions and actions expressed during his time in those positions. While working as the German ambassador, Grenell gained a reputation as undiplomatic, and associated himself with far-right nationalist political parties in Europe.

The faculty letter cites the fact that Grenell met with the Alternative for Germany party, which has promoted antisemitic, islamophobic, and xenophobic views and policies. "As we work to make CMU a welcoming place for students, staff, and scholars of color and those who are Muslim, what message does this appointment send? This appointment does not align with CMU’s stated commitment to ensure that 'every person at CMU should feel as though they belong here,'" states the letter.

In a statement responding to criticism over Grenell's hiring, published before the open letter from faculty, IPS director Kiron Skinner said the institute "is fully committed to intellectual diversity" and said that after working with Grenell, she "found him to be personally and professionally generous and respectful of varying opinions." Skinner previously worked as the Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department from 2018-19.

The letter also takes issue with sexist comments Grenell has made on social media, failure to disclose past financial conflicts, and spreading misinformation. The letter accuses CMU of not properly vetting Grenell and not getting input from other staff, stating that CMU "abdicated its responsibility to ensure academic integrity, harming our reputation in the process."

The letter is signed by faculty across several departments and disciplines, though none from IPS, which is the department that hired Grenell as a fellow.

Over email, a group of faculty members who authored the open letter say they were "moved" by the open letter written and signed by students and alumni. They feel that in CMU's defense of Grenell's hiring, they misunderstood and misused the concept of "academic freedom."

In a statement on June 16, CMU provost James Garrett defended Grenell's hiring as "a clear case of academic freedom for Dr. Skinner."

"This same academic freedom protects deans and department heads in appointments they might make," said Garrett in the statement. "Limiting that academic freedom in one case would create a precedent that could jeopardize all of us in the future."

The group of faculty, who wish to remain anonymous, says that the moral and legal concept of academic freedom applies to things like making public statements or inviting speakers on campus, but that it does not apply to "hires and appointments that establish an affiliation and employment agreement between the university and third parties."

"'Academic freedom' is about individual freedom of expression in writing and speech; it must not be misused as a way to evade the accountability and responsiveness that students and faculty have a right to expect of CMU and its administration," says the group of faculty members.

They add that this is an issue specifically with Grenell's views and past actions, not an issue with the general concept of CMU employing a person with conservative politics.

"Our community is already home to honest, socially responsible conservatives and always has room for more," they say. "Whatever his politics, Grenell's record simply does not meet CMU's academic or ethical standards."

CMU has made clear that Grenell will not teach any classes, but the group of faculty says that "he will be expected to meet with and interact with students and faculty."

In a June 25 statement responding to the situation, CMU president Farnam Jahanian said that Grenell's appointment as a senior fellow was reviewed by several deans, but only because they had to make sure the hiring "met the requirements of the financial restrictions" imposed by the pandemic.

"Had the financial restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic not been in place, the Grenell appointment would have proceeded without review by the deans who are responsible for overseeing IPS, as such review would not have been required," said Jahanian in the statement.

But Jahanian adds that he has established a committee "to review whether this appointment was considered and approved in a manner that was consistent with university policies and procedures."

Jahanian says that he has tasked Garrett with appointing a commission to discuss the questions around academic freedom and deliver findings and recommendations by the end of the year.

The open letter from faculty asks CMU to respond to concerns raised by staff and students, to provide transparency into the "financial, procedural, and ethical deliberations" that led to Grenell's hiring, and to establish policies and oversight to avoid a conflict like this in the future.

"At a time when millions are marching for racial justice in the U.S. and around the world, university leadership must act to defend rather than diminish the freedom and integrity of our community," states the letter.

Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty
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Hands off Rafah protest in East Liberty

By Mars Johnson