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College and university presidents: Time to speak up

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University — Photo: https://discover.trinitydc.edu

As students, faculty and administrators at North Carolina’s colleges and universities struggle with questions of free speech and academic freedom, veteran leaders in higher education — including a former chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill — are urging them to speak up on difficult issues.

Last week Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, cited a a recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey that found 80 percent of presidents said they would self-censor their comments on national political issues “to avoid creating a controversy for themselves or their colleges.”

Last year, when the first in a series of student surveys on speech issues found 68 percent of conservative students at UNC-Chapel Hill reported self-censoring, it was regarded as a crisis by Republican leaders and activists in the state.

But the consequences for the leaders and representatives of college and universities self-censoring at a volatile time in the nation’s history are perhaps more dire, McGuire wrote in her guest column for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“The implications for the future of higher education and this nation are dire if we presidents fail to break out of our posture of self-censorship and take our rightful places in the bully pulpit,” McGuire wrote.

In late July the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees adopted both the “Chicago Principles” and the conclusions of the “Kalven Committee Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action” in late July.

The “Chicago Principles,” crafted at the University of Chicago in 2014, affirm free expression as essential to university culture. Dozens of colleges, universities, and student and faculty groups have adopted them, including the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Council in 2018.

But the principles are not without controversy. Political conservatives, many who believe right-wing speech and ideology are suppressed in academia, support the principles. Some educators believe they preserve free, open and rigorous debate on campuses. Yet others say they fail to address some of the thorniest issues about free expression on campus and can be used to justify ignoring or curtailing student activism.

Far more controversial is the Kalven report, a product of the tumultuous political environment on campuses in the late 1960s. Few colleges or universities have adopted the conclusions of the report. Its critics at UNC system schools say it’s easy to see why: The report emphasizes that a university should stay neutral on controversial political issues.

In adopting the Kalven report, the UNC Board of Trustees said it “recognizes that the neutrality of the University on social and political issues ‘arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.’

The report “further acknowledges ‘a heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political and social issues of the day,’” the trustees wrote in their resolution of support.

McGuire rejected the idea that colleges and universities have an obligation to be neutral in times of political upheaval and controversy.

From her piece:

My fellow presidents! If we do not speak out about racial justice and political suppression of the truth about American history, or our right to teach “divisive concepts” as fundamental to the entire idea of a university, or the urgent need for immigration reform for our undocumented students, or the protection of voting rights as bedrock to a functional democracy — if we fail to speak out, how dare we robe ourselves in velvet and satin and march into our fall convocations to orate on the greatness of our institutions?

College leaders have significant obligations to the public good beyond the stewardship of our individual institutions. Higher education is the great counterweight to government in a free society, and we are responsible for raising up and defending the values we embody in the public square. We must not be intimidated by those who would silence us by denigrating fundamental moral values as mere “political issues.”

We should use our bully pulpits to teach the difference between political issues people can respectably disagree on and the foundational values that demand consensus to sustain a free society. We must be champions for civil and human rights, proclaiming the dignity and worth of all persons not only within the confines of our campus but in the larger society. We must insist on the freedom to speak, to teach, to enlarge knowledge through research and scholarship. We must demand truth as essential for governance in a good society.

Holden Thorp – Photo: Science.org

Read the full piece here.

McGuire’s sentiments echoed those of a similar column in the Chronicle earlier this month by Holden Thorp, former chancellor at UNC-Chapel Hill, on “the charade of political neutrality” in higher education.

Thorp, now editor-in-chief of the Science family of journals, said a pose of neutrality is particularly pernicious when dealing with attacks on scientific issues at the heart of the mission of higher education.

From his piece:

This supposedly sets the stage for the administration to try to stay neutral and affirm the ability for the faculty to speak their minds. But as we saw in recent reporting on the University of Florida, the end goal of the politicians is also to silence the faculty.

And is it even possible for the administration of a university dedicated to seeking the truth to be neutral about matters that can easily be analyzed using objective methods? We know gun-control laws save lives. We know climate mitigation is desperately needed. We know gender-affirming care promotes positive mental health. We know these things because we can measure them. Can we be neutral about something we can observe? We’re not neutral about linear algebra or accounting.

This neutrality is a gift to forces that seek to undermine science and other objective analysis. The art of “teaching the controversy” is Page 1 in the anti-science playbook. A few rogue experts come in and confuse the public just enough to forestall any policy actions based on established facts. Tobacco, ozone, climate, Covid — it’s always the same story. “We doubt the science, it’s not political,” they say. Whenever someone tells you something isn’t political, it is. It’s just that in such cases facts are in conflict with ideology.

Read the full piece here.

Those following this ongoing debate may be interested in an event next week at UNC-Chapel Hill. On October 6, the university’s Program for Public Discourse will host a panel discussion on intellectual diversity in higher education moderated by Dr. William Sturkey, an associate professor in the Department of History. Registration for the event, which will be held in-person and live-streamed, is here.

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College and university presidents: Time to speak up