In the day of “safe spaces” on campus, shouting down anyone who doesn’t toe the left-wing party line, and dictating what words can/not be spoken on a campus of higher learning, it is refreshing to read the speech given at a Higher Ed Conference by the President of a flagship state university.
In this case, the speaker was Teresa A. Sullivan, President of the University of Virginia (Charlottesville).
Now, some of you may know that UVA was started by none other than Thomas Jefferson. That is no small thing, and should be a badge of honor for every student admitted to that prestigious institution.
And some of you may know it is the school from which my partner graduated. We have a friendly argument about which university is older – UVA or UNC (Chapel Hill). Naturally, I am nothing but good natured when I tell her it is UNC. She does not concur with my claim, however. I don’t hold it against her, though!
In any event, the current President gave a fine speech to the American Council on Education, parts of which appear below from the UVA News site:
[…] When Thomas Jefferson conceived UVA two centuries ago, he based it on a radical proposition. He said, “This institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Jefferson wrote those words in 1820, when most universities were still church-affiliated and constrained by religious doctrine, offering only a limited course of study – law, medicine, divinity, and so on. To create a university based on total freedom of thought and expression was a bold idea.
Today, in our public universities, free expression is protected by the First Amendment. In our private universities, it’s upheld by the commitment to academic freedom. Free speech is our lingua franca in academia, and any restriction on it seems incompatible with the fundamental values of higher education.
And yet those principles that Jefferson articulated 200 years ago, and that we continue to espouse in our colleges and universities today – following truth, tolerating error, fighting error with reason – seem to be increasingly questioned, and even threatened, on college campuses.
There’s some irony in the fact that I began these remarks by quoting Thomas Jefferson, because my quoting of Jefferson became the crux of a free-speech debate at my own university last fall.
In early November, following the presidential election, I sent a message to UVA students, faculty and staff calling for unity and civility on our Grounds. I was planning to send this message regardless of who won the election, because it was clear that the divisiveness would continue no matter who became president.
In the message, I urged students not to withdraw from the political process because of any dismay they might be feeling. I included a Jefferson quote that spoke to their future roles as servants and leaders in our country’s government.
In response, about 500 UVA faculty and students sent me a letter asking me to stop quoting Thomas Jefferson in my messages to the University community. They criticized me for using Jefferson as a “moral compass,” noting his involvement in slavery during his lifetime.
In my response to their letter, I made the point that quoting Jefferson – or any historical figure – does not imply an endorsement of all the social structures and beliefs of his time, such as slavery and the exclusion of women and people of color from university life.
This whole concept of applying 21st century standards onto 19th century standards is just faulty logic from the get-go, and a bit hypocritical since we do not hear these same snowflakes freak out about human trafficking going on now in so many countries (including ours). I am glad President Sullivan doesn’t by into their attempt to dismiss the wisdom and foresight of Jefferson based on something none of us now can control, and which was wholly acceptable at the time, even though we know it is wrong.
Sullivan then highlights what is required of leaders on university campuses:
In our leadership roles in higher education, our responsibility is to stand in the middle ground between extremes, defending free speech for everyone, fending off against attacks from all sides, regardless of political beliefs or personal opinions.
The current free-speech controversy is riddled with ironies. Here’s one: In the 1960s, during the Free Speech Movement that started at Berkeley and spread to other campuses, students were the loudest proponents of free speech. Today, some students are the loudest opponents of free speech – sometimes without even realizing that they are.
A 2016 Gallup survey on “Free Expression on Campus” showed that college students were overwhelmingly in favor of free expression on campus in general, but they were also in favor of restrictions on “intentionally offensive” speech.
In this environment, many universities have adopted codes or policies prohibiting speech that may offend any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. In a report published this year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, known as FIRE, surveyed about 450 schools and found that 40 percent of them had severely restrictive speech codes that clearly prohibit constitutionally protected speech.
We need to remember, and we need to remind our students, that the First Amendment protects all speech – unless it includes threats of physical violence – and this includes speech that some may consider intolerant and offensive.
Amen to that! Sullivan is absolutely right. That is what free speech means. And if your feelings get hurt, put on your big girl/boy pants and deal with it.
President Sullivan continues:
If we protect college students today from opposing views and diverse perspectives through “speech codes” or other restrictions on free expression, we do them a great disservice, because we’re leaving them unprepared for the intellectual and social fray that they will enter the moment they step off our campuses.
The college campus is a natural proving ground for putting free speech principles into practice, because in higher education we believe in two fundamental ideas that sometimes come into conflict with each other.
Because of our commitment to academic freedom, open discourse and the clash of ideas, we vigorously support free speech. At the same time, in our increasingly diverse campus communities, we urge our students and others to show respect for the diverse backgrounds and views represented on our campuses.
Unfortunately, as we well know, too many campuses across the country do NOT have a commitment to “open discourse and the clash of ideas…” That is precisely the problem.
To that point, Vanderbilt University professor, Carol Swain, spoke about how speech is being curtailed and what university professors are pushing (continue to push):
Swain makes some excellent points, doesn’t she? Sadly, I am sure it is very hard for her to be a black conservative on a college campus these days. It SHOULDN’T matter, but we know it does.
President Sullivan also makes some good points as she begins to conclude her remarks:
In the 21st century, everyone has the right to be wrong.
The principles of free speech and campus inclusiveness should not be in conflict with each other; rather, they should reinforce each other. More voices, more perspectives from different backgrounds, all free to speak, free to disagree, free to discuss and debate.
We need to promote both free speech and diversity and inclusiveness on our campuses; we cannot let that become a mutually exclusive relationship. With the right to free speech firmly established, we need to create inclusive environments on our campuses in which everyone feels free to exercise that right.
As leaders in higher education, when free expression seems to be under attack from all sides of the political spectrum, we can set the right example by standing in the middle ground to defend it on all sides. […] (Click here to read the rest of this good address.)
Yes, we DO need to promote free speech, whether on college campuses, in businesses, in schools, and in our daily lives. We have gone TOO far in restricting speech of others if it upsets us. As noted in Sullivan’s remarks, unless someone is calling for violent acts to be committed, free speech is just that – FREE SPEECH.
It’s about time we remember exactly what the First Amendment means and how it should affect our daily lives, and that is not having every word we uttered monitored for possible hurt feelings.
That’s what I think, anyway. How about you? This is an Open Thread.