BY JONATHAN LAI
PHILADELPHIA – 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.
CDC research halt
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. Phil 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.
‘Public health concern’
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 state Senate Higher Education Committee.
Behind the concept
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 (state 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 state 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, academic have bristled when lawmakers have sought to influence faculty hiring or firing, student admissions, faculty speech or teaching.
‘Crossing the line’
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.”