Higher Education and the Commitment to Free and Open Inquiry

Sent: September 10, 2021

From: Vincent J. Del Casino, Jr., Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

Dear Colleagues,

We seem to be sitting at an inflection point. At that point is a tension — perhaps a productive one —  that asks what constitutes robust, open debate? This debate is not just on campuses but in our wider world, where people are calling into question, for example, the science of vaccination or the efficacy of certain approaches to the liberal arts. 

As we all know, within higher education specifically, academics have long disagreed with each other, politically, theoretically, and methodologically. Some of those debates might have been considered “healthy” in the past, even though they were often based in exclusionary and elitist practices that have served to marginalize many voices. As we know, power and authority in the academy has also been used to directly squash certain perspectives over time. This outcome is partially driven by the fact that the academy is also governed by a murky and uneven political economy that privileges certain voices over others.  

Within this complicated reality, we find ourselves engaging in critical questions about what and how to manage the relations that are both part of our academic life and exterior to that life. Put another way, we have to grapple with students and colleagues who may challenge the way that truth gets defined and articulated or how certain lived experiences are complicated by systemic practices that many would consider unjust. Those students and colleagues are drawing not just from their own academic background but also their own personal and lived experiences.

Of course, this messy world is further complicated by academic freedom and first amendment rights. Speech is very hard to regulate — and it should be. In the context of academic freedom, faculty members have the right to openly critique and criticize authority, question each other, and challenge students. Freedom of speech and expression goes further, in that it provides an opportunity to share ideas quite broadly. That does not mean, however, that we have to like what others say, but universities are obligated to provide the space for people to say it.

There are exceptions. For example, when speech by one person or group threatens physical harm to or unlawfully harasses another person or group, a university may impose sanctions. There is also the situation whereby the speech of one person or group knowingly or recklessly defames another or invades a person’s right to privacy. Such speech may be regulated by local and federal law. In the context of academic freedom, we also have campus processes (and external accreditation bodies) as well as policies on curriculum and course syllabi, which govern the content of individual courses or programs. 

In general, however, most speech is protected speech and no matter what we think about someone’s speech, it is not up to the university (or its administration) to judge what should be said and by whom. The university has to provide equal access as best it can to all the debates. This commitment to equal access means that even if one administrator or another vehemently disagrees with the speech of another community member, they have to manage and protect the rights of all community members to speak freely and openly. We cannot interfere with speech that is protected, no matter what we think of that speech.

So, what is the best way to confront speech we might find abhorrent, distasteful or, simply, not true? The answer is more speech — and then more speech again. That said, we must acknowledge the emotional labor that goes into some struggles; there is a clear need for more voices to be at the table, including those who might be directly affected by such speech and their allies. Picking and choosing which issues to take up and which ones to walk away from —  a personal decision that might change depending on the day and one’s energy level —  is a necessary part of our reality as well. 

I am not naïve. I know the playing field is not an even one. I understand the histories that have created this uneven field. At the same time, I cannot demand nor can I make demands on my colleagues who choose to write certain opinions or publish certain papers that I, or others, might find politically, ethically, or morally problematic. Regardless of job title or level, we must respect everyone’s right to free speech, and it is incumbent on our leaders to give colleagues’ work — whether they personally align with it or not — the space to be shared and viewed by others. 

Given all that is going on in the world today, I hope that we can continue to engage each other in an honest and open debate about what matters to us professionally and personally. We can dislike what others say – vehemently and with deep passion, in fact. When people say something out loud, they should be prepared for others to exercise their right to respond, as others have a right to challenge the ideas of their colleagues in a robust way as long as it does not infringe on another person’s right to their speech. 

If we don’t protect these rights, universities will lose one of their core functions, which is to develop theories, ideas, and practices that help advance the well-being of others and take up the very real and, sometimes, scary challenges that lie ahead.