University Mission Statements: False Promises or True Commitments?

Colleges and universities are identified as institutions committed to the pursuit of knowledge and the promotion of free speech. A university trains its students to think critically and encourages active debate among them. It is a place where students can forge their own conclusions and voice their individual viewpoints without fear of censure or reprisal. It is a place where they can communicate, debate, and persuade one another.

This commitment to truth and free speech is expressed clearly in mission statements and welcome letters from university presidents. Harvard University’s mission statement, for example, states that the university’s goal is to “[encourage] students to respect ideas and their free expression, and to rejoice in discovery and in critical thought.”

But universities are not consistent in their written promises and commitments. For many years, universities have implemented so-called “speech codes” to punish and suppress discriminatory or otherwise disrespectful remarks that could–in their vague language–potentially impair the “well-being” of other students. Student handbooks usually contain sections specifically devoted to listing policies that define the expected standards of conduct for students. Princeton University’s Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities handbook demands that students “respect the rights, privileges, and sensibilities of each other.” Verbal behavior “which demeans, intimidates, threatens, or injures another is subject to University disciplinary sanctions.”

These codes seem reasonable if they are meant to restrict harassment of individual students, but aggressive student activists often appeal to the vague language of these codes to target controversial ideas. It is in such cases, more than ever, that universities must have the courage to confront and discipline those who keep others from expressing their views. They must defend, not oppose, those who communicate ideas that are allegedly insulting or offensive to others.

Last fall, the Columbia administration confronted an incident that tested their commitment to the university’s mission. The Columbia College Republicans invited Mr. Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, an organized vigilance group that reports illegal immigrants to legal authorities. Mr. Gilchrist accepted the invitation and flew to Columbia with the purpose of communicating his anti-immigration arguments to an audience willing to listen.

Unfortunately, Mr. Gilchrist was met with fierce disruption from pro-immigration activists, who regarded the lecture as an offensive “verbal attack” on their deepest sensibilities. What began as a peaceful event on an October day quickly turned into a violent demonstration as student protesters stormed the stage to chant their view that “no one is ever illegal.” Mr. Gilchrist, forced to leave the building, was unable to complete his lecture.

Immediately after the incident, President Bollinger issued a public announcement that “the University [was] thoroughly investigating the incident.” He also deplored student activists for “[using] the cover of protest to silence speakers,” thereby threatening the very principle Columbia is “institutionally dedicated” to protecting–namely the right to free speech. After a somewhat long investigative and bureaucratic process, the university punished some of protesters for their reprehensible conduct.

The Columbia administration deserves to be acknowledged for recognizing, to a certain degree, the need to defend the very principle that, in Bollinger’s own words, stimulates “intellectual inquiry and vigorous debate.” But universities, if they are fully committed to free speech, need to do much more than merely discipline students after the fact. Given the regularity of such disruptions across college campuses, administrations should take more pro-active measures to prevent dissenters from interrupting club-sponsored events.

In contrast to the episode at Columbia University, administrators at UCLA actually took evasive measures to prevent club L.O.G.I.C., the campus Objectivist Club, from holding their scheduled debate on immigration.

The leaders had organized a debate between Mr. Carl Braun, director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, and Dr. Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute. But a few days before, the university administration cancelled the event in response to a leftist student group’s threats that it would launch a Columbia-style protest. With slogans like “Say No to Hate!” the group intended to show their opposition toward the Minutemen and their “racist agenda.”

Ironically, both L.O.G.I.C. and the Ayn Rand Institute advocate views contrary to those of Mr. Braun and his anti-immigration supporters. But Dr. Brook’s arguments in favor of open immigration were not heard in February because the university succumbed to intimidation.

In a similar case, the campus Objectivist club at George Mason University was obliged to cancel historian John Lewis’ lecture on the war on terrorism. Muslim student groups filed complaints to the university administration, which lead the department to revoke the venue in order to avoid a potential controversy. This resulted in further “investigations” that lead the university to suspend the event on a technicality.

Fortunately, student protesters did not have the last say in these two stories. Due to the unyielding persistence of club leaders and to support from outside sources, both clubs found ways to re-schedule their events for later in the semester.

Despite their claims to the contrary, these incidents show that some protesters act to silence and suppress the free exchange of ideas between students. Their fundamental goal is not to persuade other students that their views are correct, but to impose their ideas through intimidation and aggression. As a consistent and neutral guardian of free speech, the UCLA administration, instead of building insurmountable barriers at the first sign of social upheaval, should have supported L.O.G.I.C. with adequate security during the event. Their hesitancy and cowardice only shows their willingness to undercut the principle of free expression in order to not offend certain student groups. This can only further encourage and embolden belligerent student activists.

With this in mind, universities must provide a safe haven for speech that is controversial, unpopular, and perhaps insulting to students with opposing viewpoints. Universities must, as a matter of principle, react immediately to threats from student activists–by punishing those who disturb student-sponsored events and by taking the necessary steps to ensure that adequate security is available. But perhaps more importantly, administrators should publicly condemn the actions of protesters as nonacademic and uncivilized while encouraging dissenters to respond by means of arguments, not disruptions.

This is especially necessary in cases where the ideas being advocated are unpopular. Popularity is in no way the measure of an idea’s validity. Ideas which many once thought correct are now known to be false and immoral. Likewise, ideas once shunned as untrue and heretical are now seen with different eyes. History provides ample examples of this common clash between truth and majority approval. Prior to the civil war, for instance, most people in the south justified and promoted slavery and segregation. Prior to Copernicus, most accepted the model from ancient times that the planets and the stars revolved around the earth. Heretics were persecuted and killed for challenging once widespread religious doctrine.

The purpose of free speech is to permit the expression of ideas, but more specifically, those ideas which are not popularly embraced or that might be offensive to a group of people. It is only the offensive, controversial, unpopular kind of speech that actually requires protection. Speech that vilifies and denounces capitalism or promotes a “green” America needs no protection because such views are met with very little, if any, opposition. What really requires defense is unpopular speech–namely, speech that challenges environmentalist policies, denies the alleged rights to welfare and healthcare, or advocates full-blown military action against terrorism-supporting nations even at the expense of civilian casualties. These examples point to highly unpopular positions-positions which activists will attempt to silence, no matter how civil the actions of the speakers may be.

University administrators, as one can see, are often inconsistent in their defense of free expression outside the classroom. It is crucial that they implement their philosophies consistently in order to fulfill their mission–namely, to educate and train the minds of our future generation.

It is the nature of the very object of education–i.e. the student’s mind–that necessitates a proper defense of freedom of speech. The mind requires freedom: the freedom to ask questions, to seek knowledge, and to evaluate observations in order to reach logical conclusions. This freedom to think does imply that some students will reach false conclusions and hold irrational beliefs, but it is this very implication that makes the free exchange of ideas even more necessary. An honest student who holds false beliefs will have a hard time being persuaded of his errors if those who may hold true beliefs are prevented from expressing theirs.

A university must serve as the impartial guardian, the warden that protects both right and wrong ideas, independent of their popularity. It is only in this kind of learning environment-one that fosters civilized and lively debate-that the best ideas and the best minds can flourish and prevail.

Kelly Cadenas is a third year undergraduate at Harvard University, where she currently pursues a degree in Biochemistry.

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