Trustees | Freedom of Expression

Colleges can handle controversy without squelching free speech

PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER   |  March 23, 2009 by Charles Mitchell

Millersville University has been in hot water lately over William Ayers, the Weatherman-turned-Fox News preoccupation. Ayers was back in the news because Millersville, a public university in Lancaster County, invited him to speak there last week. The university was inundated with outrage from the local community, including a letter from peeved state legislators.

Millersville wasn’t alone in having a speaker-related brouhaha on its hands. Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in the opposite corner of the state, got heat for booking former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill last month. Churchill was reviled nationwide for comparing the victims of 9/11 to Nazis, and he was fired after five faculty committees agreed he had committed repeated and serious plagiarism.

Millersville and IUP were right not to renege on the invitations. Disinviting a controversial speaker undermines academic freedom by allowing those who dislike someone’s view to keep it from being heard. Once a guest has been invited through appropriate procedures, it is incumbent on the institution to allow him to air his views.

But that doesn’t mean our colleges shouldn’t be more thoughtful about whom they invite in the first place. Controversies over speaking invitations, which have occurred across campuses nationwide, will never entirely subside. But universities could go a long way toward quelling them with rigorous policies on guest speakers.

As things stand, speakers are invited to universities willy-nilly. Students issue some invitations. Faculty members are responsible for others (as in the two cases mentioned). And the administration often plays a role, too.

Each group does its own thing, generally without any overarching philosophy, until the funding is gone. Typically, no one is in a position to ensure it’s spent with students’ education in mind.

This needn’t be so. For starters, why not ask students and faculty to submit lists of their planned speakers by a certain date? Simply collecting information poses no threat to academic freedom. And knowing more about who’s coming, the administration could fill in gaps.

For instance, if Ward Churchill is coming, fine. But the next night, perhaps there should be a faculty panel on academic integrity. After all, studies show cheating is at unacceptable levels.

Knowing who’s invited to campus, college leaders can thoughtfully augment student and faculty speakers with other guests who will add to the mix of ideas. For example, the administration at my alma mater, central Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University, has gone out of its way to ensure it has speakers of varying perspectives. Through efforts such as the Bucknell Forum—a new program designed to expose students to the key debates of our times—and other endowed fellowships, the university has recruited speakers ranging from renowned historians David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin to progressive author Barbara Ehrenreich and conservative scholar Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

This approach protects the free exchange of ideas. And it ensures that increasingly scarce funds are being used to give students a range of perspectives that help them make up their own minds.


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