Universities Should Be Safe Spaces -- for Intellectual Diversity

Universities Should Be Safe Spaces -- for Intellectual Diversity
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As university professors and administrators, we are deeply concerned with escalating attacks on free speech and inquiry all across American higher education – and we believe that lessons of national import can be learned from the situation at our alma mater in Vermont. Middlebury College recently completed its public response to the physical intimidation and assault visited upon Charles Murray and Middlebury Professor Allison Stanger on March 2. Last week it issued a press release stating that 67 students had received sanctions “ranging from probation to official College discipline.” Middlebury also has appointed a special committee to “explore and discuss issues relating to” the incident.

This past semester featured episodes across the country of university and college students using physical intimidation to preempt or harass speakers; using similar tactics against professors who did not share their views on censoring speech; demanding control of faculty hiring to meet their demands for diversity; and demanding that regular disciplinary procedures to address all such extraordinary actions be suspended. The most recent incidents occurred at UCLA and Claremont McKenna College, Indiana University, Pomona College, and Evergreen State College. Because this educational crisis has spread to so many American campuses, we think Middlebury’s leaders have a responsibility to do more.

We write as grateful alumni of Middlebury College who were inspired by our education there to become professors. We hold diverse political views and teach at varied institutions – but we share a commitment to fundamental propositions about higher learning, especially that robust debate and diverse inquiry are essential to the search for truth. We are saddened that the college has failed to seize an opportunity to firmly defend these foundational principles. The stakes now are heightened because students nationwide are rejecting freedom of expression and embracing a new version of the heckler’s veto.

Middlebury’s response thus far is simply insufficient to address the current threats to higher education, free expression, and reasoned discourse. When The Wall Street Journal published a statement – signed by over 100 faculty members at Middlebury – defending these core principles, 151 Middlebury students issued a point-by-point response. Their response demonstrates that they, like many students nationwide, equate Murray’s speech with violence, and think a belligerent response was justified. Murray had no right to speak, they contend, because “[o]ppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence.” And the students’ own actions preventing Murray from speaking, they said, actually “defend[ed] the integrity of reasoned and civil discourse.”

This view is self-evidently wrong. Shouting down a speaker – to say nothing of setting off fire alarms or committing assault – is not “defending” reasoned discourse. The appropriate response to Murray’s lecture event, which by design featured his commitment to take questions and hear objections, would be an argument in kind. A special place for such important exchanges of views used to be known as a college or university.

President Laurie Patton now should take additional measures to demonstrate that Middlebury College fully embraces free intellectual inquiry and the welcoming of diverse views on the campus.

First, while federal law limits the information that can be released about an individual student, Middlebury has no restrictions either in law or policy that prevent it from providing a more informative summary of the judicial decisions and actions it has taken. Greater transparency would underscore the college’s commitment to enforcing its policies on freedom of expression and thought.

Second, the membership of the newly named committee should be reconsidered to provide more balanced representation. Although it currently includes only one (relatively junior) faculty member who signed the Wall Street Journal statement, it includes two faculty members who signed a statement defending the students’ actions and one student who signed the response equating offensive speech with violence. A committee so constituted is unlikely to mount a vigorous attack on censorship or recommend a reaffirmation of core educational principles. Further, the committee must confront difficult issues. Are current free-speech policies and disciplinary procedures adequate, or do other institutions have more effective models? How should a university react to masked protesters in an educational setting, given recent precedents at Middlebury and elsewhere that masks portend violent enforcement of a heckler’s veto?

Third, the college should organize a speaker series in 2017-18 on freedom of speech and intellectual diversity. The series should encompass both speakers who favor traditional liberal views on freedom of speech, and those favoring the newer view that allows certain individuals and groups to veto a speaker who allegedly imperils diversity and inclusion. The president should clearly announce, however, that the ground rules for this series reflect the current college policy, stated vigorously: that students who disrupt any of the presentations will suffer serious consequences.

Finally, Middlebury should endorse the Report of the Committee on Free Expression issued by the University of Chicago in 2015, as many other educational institutions have done. The college has so far been reluctant to state that it will not “restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed” – and that “[a]lthough faculty, students and staff are free to criticize, contest and condemn the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.” That reluctance is incompatible with Middlebury’s longstanding commitment to the search for truth.

These four steps by President Patton on behalf of the college would do a great deal to express the Middlebury’s core commitments to its central activities of education and free inquiry, and to advance the national conversation about these commitments. If Middlebury considers itself a leading institution of higher education, it should be a model worthy of emulation, not a beacon of intolerance.

Christopher F. D’Elia ‘68
Professor and Dean, College of the Coast and Environment
Louisiana State University

Richard Eldridge ‘75
Charles and Harriett Cox McDowell Professor of Philosophy
Swarthmore College

Peter Minowitz ‘76
Professor of Political Science
Santa Clara University

Suzanna Sherry ’76
Herman O. Loewenstein Professor of Law
Vanderbilt University

James R. Stoner Jr. ‘77
Hermann Moyse Jr. Professor & Director of the Eric Voegelin Institute
Department of Political Science
Louisiana State University

Paul O. Carrese ‘89
Director and Professor, School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership
Arizona State University

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