A Campus Is Not the Place for Free Speech

In the wake of President Trump's executive order, David R. Harris explains why he opposes free speech at colleges and universities.

March 25, 2019
 
 
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President Trump has made good on his recent vow to sign an executive order on campus free speech. Colleges and universities that violate the order now risk losing federal funding that supports vital research and educational activities.

Many of the president’s supporters have applauded his free speech decision, in part because they argue that higher education institutions trumpet liberal perspectives and silence conservative voices. A familiar set of examples tends to be offered as evidence of the lack of free speech on campuses.

The response from the higher education community and from many others has been to decry what they see as governmental overreach, and to argue that the president and his supporters do not understand what actually happens on college campuses.

What most commentators on both sides of the debate fail to address fully is the real purpose of speech at colleges and universities, especially at private institutions, which are not themselves public spaces. This purpose is why I always answer the same way when asked, as I am regularly, about my views on free speech. My response is as follows: “I oppose free speech on college campuses.”

Why would a college president, especially one who has not already announced his retirement, make such a statement? It is not because I think college campuses should be safe havens from voices on the left and right that violate what I have learned and what I believe. My opposition is just as strong when it comes to free speech arguments in support of voices that affirm my beliefs.

The mission of a higher education institution is to provide students and all in our community with the information, experiences and opportunities to understand not what to think, but rather what the arguments are for various perspectives and how strong each argument is. Our focus is on how and why, and only indirectly on what.

Free speech, in its purest form, is an exercise in what is achieved when a person yells a view and then leaves, after which someone with an opposing perspective does the same. The speakers do not grow as a result of the experience, and the audience has no opportunity to probe the opposing points of view. Such an exercise is guaranteed by the Constitution, and I wholeheartedly support the exercise of free speech in public spaces.

On campuses, however, we must strive for something more than free speech. Our mission requires that we seek what I refer to as constructive engagement. It is not enough for individuals to speak freely. We must also find myriad ways to put a range of views into conversation with one another. It is what we do in classrooms every day. It is what we do on debate teams. It is what happens across every campus, far more than critics appreciate. It is what happens in the lives of college students much more frequently than in the lives of most adults, in part because college campuses and social networks tend to be more diverse than “real world” neighborhoods and social clubs.

This emphasis on constructive engagement is why, at Union College, we have launched an initiative to create the conditions for hearing and learning from diverse perspectives. One key element is an explicit and stated goal of understanding. Another is that speakers must take unscreened, sincere questions from the audience, and they are expected to respond respectfully. And finally, speakers must have evidence and reasoned arguments to support their views, given that both form the foundation upon which knowledge and wisdom rest. This is not the place to bash those who think otherwise with literal or figurative personal attacks, to privilege heat and fury over light and insight.

With this approach, and especially in the small, collegial community that is our distinctive liberal arts college, we commit to exposing our community to a range of perspectives. Success is not measured by how different the speakers’ views are from those most prevalent on the campus, but rather by the number of people who understand, and perhaps even reconsider or change their views as a result of the experience, regardless of the direction of change. As an educational institution, that’s our goal in the classroom. We expect nothing less of the speech that occurs elsewhere on campus.

Bio

David R. Harris is president of Union College.

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