On Academic Freedom — A Response

April 4, 2011

On March 23, Charles Murray came to campus as a speaker at my invitation.  Ten minutes into his remarks on “The Happiness of People,” persons unknown pulled a firealarm requiring us to empty the hall.  We resumed in another building.  A second pulled fire alarm cut short a reception after the event.

On March 24, I sent out a brief statement to the college community.  Since then, we have had an intense discussion on campus, face-to-face, via listservs and also via the student newspapers.  In the midst of that discussion, I posted a second statement.  Today, in response to a letter to the Faculty sent by several dozen students, I sent the letter below to the College community.


A response to your March 30 letter about the Charles Murray visit

Donnie Smith came to see me on Friday to discuss the Charles Murray visit.  I appreciated the opportunity even though, at the end of the conversation, we still disagreed about a good deal.  I had a chance to hear him, and he had a chance to hear me.  During the visit, he encouraged me to respond to the March 30 letter from “Concerned Earlham Students” addressed to the Faculty about “Charles Murray’s campus visit.”

The letter and the considerable campus discussion of the past week raise a number of important issues.

(1) Are there some speakers we ought never to invite to campus? I agree that there are such unacceptable speakers.  For starters, I don’t believe we should welcome anyone who is not involved, with integrity, in the search for truth.  That doesn’t mean we only invite people with which we agree: we can and should acknowledge that some with which we disagree are also seeking truth.

The student letter says: “Our community would not tolerate a speaker who was openly anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim.”  In fact a few years ago we did: a student group invited Malik Zulu Shabazz from The New Black Panther Party to speak.  Even though NBPP is widely considered an anti-Semitic hate group, we upheld his right to speak at the college.  Why was he invited?  Because we don’t make decisions about who to invite as a whole community.  Instead, our Events Policy broadly distributes the right and responsibility to invite speakers among all departments and all recognized student groups, as well as the Events Committee and the President.  That’s as it should be.  Invitations to speakers are not occasions when we should try to reach a consensus of everyone.

(2) Should we allow speakers to be invited who will offend some or even many on campus? Should we allow invitations to those who will give others,  through their words, pain and discomfort?  Yes, I think we should, though that may be a troubling thought.  Certainly no one should invite a speaker just to try to give offense or provoke controversy for the sake of controversy.  As our mission statement affirms, truth-seeking should always be our guide.

We are an educational institution, and we learn here by confronting new and challenging thoughts.  Were we to insist on no one ever risking hearing offensive thoughts, we might be a more comfortable place, but a less effective college in terms of the education we offer.  I believe that we ought to invite such a broad range of speakers each year that every member of our community will find one speaker who offends him or her.

(3) Before speakers arrive, should we have discussions and forums to get ready for controversial speakers? Yes, and sometimes we have had such occasions.  I don’t think, however, that the sponsor of an event should be solely responsible for holding such pre-discussions.  Anyone could and anyone who thinks there would be value in such a discussion should sponsor such a pre-event.  That’s what happened when Anne Coulter (on one occasion) and Michelle Easton (on another) were invited by the Events Committee to give Convocations.  Groups of concerned faculty organized discussions ahead of the event in question.

(4) Is it appropriate to protest speakers, to consider them objectionable? Yes, of course, even vigorously.   No one has to attend any speech or event at Earlham, though of course any member of the community is also welcome to attend.  You can come prepared to ask searching questions.  You can picket or protest the event.  When segregationist George Wallace spoke at Earlham in the early 1960s, those who attended greeted him in stony silence; they neither applauded nor asked any questions; they simply filed out when he was finished.  That was legitimate.  Any effort to stop him from speaking would not have been.   It’s even appropriate to forcefully declare you don’t think the speaker should have been invited, so long as you don’t try to silence the speaker.

(5) Isn’t our commitment to peace and justice more important than allowing objectionable speakers to be heard? Earlham believes in peace and justice.  Isn’t that more important?  Here is where we get into the terrain of academic freedom.  Shouldn’t academic freedom take a back seat to the quest for peace and justice?  Isn’t it more important to silence a speaker seen as an opponent of peace and justice?  I hear that claim in the March 30 student letter to the Faculty:  “We stand with the students responsible for pulling the fire alarm,” the letter says, “because we see their actions as a symbolic reflection of the kind of world in which we strive to live – a world in which injustice is always disrupted in pursuit of justice, and falsity is always interrupted in pursuit of truth seeking.”

Academic freedom is one of the signature, defining values of any institution of higher education.  I feel obligated to say some things about why we should all feel a responsibility to uphold academic freedom, no matter what our views of Murray or any other speaker.  Academic freedom is grounded in a conviction that colleges and universities must always uphold the search for truth and reject efforts to declare some putative “truths” to be considered unchallengeable orthodoxy.

There are many important statements articulating what we mean by academic freedom and why it is important.  All state that colleges and universities must be unusually open to allowing all who speak to be heard and allowing all to be able to hear anyone who speaks.  All authoritative statements of academic freedom condemn efforts to stop or silence speaking.  To some, the pulling of a fire alarm may seem a small or inoffensive way of stopping speech, but an effort to silence it was, and must be taken seriously on that account.

It is to the American Association of University Professors that we principally look for the most important and authoritative statements of academic freedom.  It is the AAUP that has campaigned tirelessly for the academic freedom of faculty members and of students to be able to pursue learning, teaching and research without fear of being silenced or negatively affected because of the ideas expressed.  AAUP’s statements on academic freedom are important touchstones for all who discuss the meaning and reach of academic freedom.

Academic freedom is a critical protection for students and faculty to freely pursue their studies without fear of reprisals from those who would insist that there are settled truths.  Academic freedom is especially important for those who think new, challenging and courageous thoughts.  It was an important issue at the time of the anti-communist McCarthy witch-hunts.  It has been an important protection for those arguing for the rights of women and minorities.  It has been an important protection for those arguing on behalf of the rights of the poor.  It has been an important protection for those arguing against war when there are large majorities in favor of war.  It would be a very sad irony for a college whose students and faculty have enjoyed the protections of academic freedom to thoughtlessly violate the principle in the name of a new orthodoxy.

In recent years, the AAUP has spoken especially forcefully about academic freedom with regard to external speakers.  In their 2007 statement on the topic, they said:

It is of course the responsibility of a college or university to guarantee the safety of invited speakers, and administrators ought to make every effort to ensure conditions of security in which outside speakers have an opportunity to express their views. The university is no place for a heckler’s veto.  In 1983, when unruly individuals on various campuses prevented United States Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick from addressing university audiences, Committee A [the AAUP’s committee on academic freedom] reaffirmed “its expectation that all members of the academic community will respect the right of others to listen to those who have been invited to speak on campus and will indicate disagreement not by disruptive action designed to silence the speaker but by reasoned debate and discussion as befits academic freedom in a community of higher learning.”  We have always been clear that colleges and universities bear the obligation to ensure conditions of peaceful discussion, which at times can be quite onerous.

“A heckler’s veto:” that’s exactly what the pulled fire alarm attempted to be.  And the AAUP statement clearly declares it is the responsibility of the college to assure that speakers can express their views.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities also has a forceful statement on “Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility.”  That statement usefully stresses the educational importance of students being challenged by ideas with which they disagree so that students can come to understand and support better what they themselves think.  Says the AAC&U statement:

“The clash of competing ideas is an important catalyst, not only for the expansion of knowledge but also in students’ development of independent critical judgment. Recognizing this dynamic, many well-intentioned observers underline the importance of “teaching all sides of the debate” in college classrooms. Teaching the debates is important but by no means sufficient. It is also essential that faculty help students learn—through their college studies—to engage differences of opinion, evaluate evidence, and form their own grounded judgments about the relative value of competing perspectives. This too is an essential part of higher education’s role both in advancing knowledge and in sustaining a society that is free, diverse, and democratic.”

Earlham has had its share of academic freedom issues.  Some stretch back more than a century to issues regarding Darwin vs. the Bible, and whether to use historical and critical methods in reading the Bible.  The invitation to Malik Zulu Shabazz of the New Black Panther Party was another instance, and we upheld his right to speak at the college.  More recently, objections to speech have concerned issues of sexuality.  We often hear objections to student performances of The Vagina Monologues, for example, but we have consistently defended students’ choices to perform and discuss this work.

In  2005,  a student disrupted a speech by William Kristol, but the College declared that act unacceptable.  At that time I wrote to the college community and to our alumni and friends:

“Academic freedom—freedom of thought and expression—is a cornerstone of every college or university worthy of the name.  The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives all of us a right to speak freely without interference from government.  Academic freedom takes that idea farther at colleges and universities by insisting that the right to speak freely must not meet with interference from anyone, and by laying upon all members of the academic community the responsibility to ensure that all others enjoy this right.”

All of us share the responsibility.  Each time academic freedom has been challenged, we have emerged a stronger, clearer institution.  At this moment, it is important we reaffirm our commitment to academic freedom.

Over many decades, Earlham’s consistent judgment has been to uphold academic freedom, even as we ask students to think deeply about issues of peace and justice and to prepare themselves for lives of service devoted to the pursuit of peace and justice.  In 1969, at a time of passionate advocacy for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, for example, Earlham’s Faculty and Board of Trustees approved “Earlham’s Values and Standards,” a statement you can find in our Governance Manual: it is the first document in the Essays section.   It says:

“Earlham College is devoted to the idea that truth is best sought and is most likely to be found through honest questioning and open listening, through rigorous reasoning and calm reflection.”  And later,

“The basic human right of orderly dissent is honored at Earlham, but the use of intimidation or physical violence to express dissent is not accepted.  Those means are entirely foreign to the spirit and traditions of the College, which can neither submit to violence nor use it in dealing with conflict.  Anyone who uses such means will, through his own actions, lay himself open to separation from the community.  Earlham College, in keeping with the testimony of the Society of Friends, seeks to live in that spirit that takes away the occasion of irreconcilable conflict.”

Earlham’s Harassment Policy draws on an AAUP statement when it says,  “the commitment to reasoned discourse that is a defining characteristic of colleges and universities entails a corollary commitment to maintain an environment free from such impediments to intellectual exchange. [R]easoned discourse depends upon common adherence to minimum standards of civility.”

Our Quaker grounding doesn’t soften our commitment to academic freedom, it strengthens that commitment.  We do not just ask for tolerance from the community towards speakers, we ask for respect.

(6) How about members of our community who may feel silenced by the arrival of a speaker they find objectionable? Education is always, in one aspect, a finding of one’s own voice.   For some, it is a process of coming out of silence (and the feeling of being silenced) into a confidant, clear, forceful and thoughtful voice.  On behalf of this, we must be a place that insists that no one will feel a negative consequence (loss of a job, a poor grade) because of speaking out.  No one with power should ever, at Earlham, visit negative consequences on anyone (no exceptions) for speaking out.

That is another way of stating our commitment to academic freedom, and we must also extend that to speakers.  As we make that commitment, however, we cannot promise to anyone that they will be sheltered from vigorous arguments that feel painful.  We are an educational institution in which we are encouraging young men and women to grow in understanding, confidence and voice.  We learn to have courage, as we learn most things, through experience, sometimes challenging, even difficult experience.  We can assure members of the community that they will not be physically silenced, but we cannot assure them they will only hear ideas and expressions that they find comforting.  The commitment to academic freedom is a dramatic commitment that speaking is safe.  To protect people from challenging ideas would undermine the educational value of confronting competing ideas.


In the end, Murray had the opportunity to speak despite the effort to silence him.  An audience had an opportunity to hear him and question him.  In the aftermath, it is important to reaffirm Earlham’s commitment to academic freedom.  Even as you boldly declaim (if that is your leading) why he is wrong.  Even as you loudly decry (if that is your leading) that this person should ever have been invited.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to On Academic Freedom — A Response

  1. Pingback: Confronting Untruth | The Observatory

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