Freedom of Expression and Our Universities

Photo Courtesy UVM


UVM’s recent decision to cancel an appearance by Palestinian poet and journalist Mohammed El-Kurd from Israel was a poor choice. It was reportedly based on the assumption that the educational mission of a college or university and the safety of its students can be at odds. One can adhere to mission and use their best efforts to ensure safety, even as we know that absolute safety is impossible in our fractious world.

We know, for example, from our failure to regulate firearms that school safety is relative. Were we to lock down schools entirely, how would they deliver on educational mission while wholly isolated from the cultural and intellectual communities they serve? Is “safety” about preventing potential violence at the expense of students’ intellectual and emotional growth?

The mission of education is not only to train learners in the basic skills they need to learn and communicate, like reading, writing, scientific inquiry, debate, and physical education; it’s also to expose them to the expanding world of ideas, cultures, and ethics, and to stimulate new emotions. This can only be done in a school or campus where all ideas are welcome all the time.

I went from a solid educational foundation in the Morrisville public schools to Phillips Exeter Academy, not because I was an exceptional student but because I was a “legacy.” Attending an all-male boarding school established to educate but also to sustain class privilege far away from family and friends was a painful transition.

There was very little racial or economic diversity. But having said that, I was exposed to a diversity of ideas, experiences, and people I might never have met at home. There were no limits on our exposure to art, the humanities, or science. We read “dangerous” books like Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Orwell’s “1984,” Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” Dostoievski’s “The Idiot,” Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” Camus’ “The Stranger,” Dante’s “Inferno,” and other books I’d never have come across. (“Moms for Liberty” was not yet rampaging through our libraries or reading lists removing books). We were encouraged to read and absorb a world of new, alien and often scary ideas.

Every Saturday night, the school gym was converted to a movie theater. After the ever-popular Roadrunner cartoon, we watched movies we would never have seen in our local Bijou theater in Morrisville. The foreign films that have stayed with me forever were often terrifying: Alain Resnais’ “Night and Fog,” and “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” Marcel Carne’s “Children of Paradise,” Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” Fellini’s “ La Strada,” De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief,” Frank Perry’s “David and Lisa,” and many others. I had no idea this world existed. This was the value of an uncompromising education and, later, of my time at Kenyon and UVM.

The mission of higher education must be sacrosanct. If we try to protect children from a world they’ve already begun to experience, we do so at our peril and theirs.

Exactly a century ago, in 1923, when a young mother with a newborn baby at her breast asks Kahlil Gibran for his advice on parenting, he answers in his masterpiece “The Prophet”:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

The very idea of a university was to bring together learners and the learned to inspire our rational faculties. Having been both, I valued my time as a teacher largely because I learned that learning was reciprocal.

In the marketplace of ideas, the freedom to learn, articulate, discuss, and validate (or not) the great spectrum of ideas is necessary to succeed. When we restrict, censor or bowdlerize ideas and opinions, we compromise the mission of a university. This is happening more and more in our public schools, colleges and universities to their detriment. There is such a thing as age-appropriate learning, but we do not want to dumb-down teaching. Young people today are not as naïve as adults seem to think they are.

Having said this, any threatening or violent racist, gender-specific, or anti-religious intimidation, harassment, hate speech, or activity must result in a due-process expulsion of that student, teacher, or administrator. I say “due process” only because, on rare occasions, such discussions can be nuanced.

A friend, an observant Jew, was rhapsodizing about Netanyahu and the State of Israel and, sensing my doubt, asked my thoughts. I explained that although I had great reverence for the Jewish people (My father’s family were non-observant German Jews,) I did not believe that the political strategies of the current Israeli government under Netanyahu   ̶   an opinion then held by a majority of Israelis   ̶    were in their best interests or the interests of others in the region. She responded “So, you’re an antisemite.”

Although I tried to explain that expressing doubts about the political strategy of Netanyahu did not in anyway compromise my respect for the Jewish people, the conversation was over.

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In learning institutions, the three vital channels of communication are essay, story, and data. Higher ed is about all of them.

To write the classic essay, one posits a statement, supports it with facts, and then rationalizes the conclusion based on the facts presented. The visual form of essay is documentary film, increasingly taught in this digital age.

STEM education derives from proven scientific, technical knowledge, and lab work which then yields proven data.

Story and the arts evoke emotion and sometimes empathy and have the capacity to change opinions and minds. Examples are Picasso’s Guernica, and The Diary of Anne Frank, both of which radically altered the public’s perception of war.

Institutions of higher ed are under serious threat today as evidenced by UVM’s decision.

The conflict in the Middle East has polarized what should be open and rational debate at our universities. On the night of the Hamas attack, a coalition of some 30 student groups at Harvard posted an open letter blaming Israel for the violence that killed some 1400 people. The students were broadly doxxed and attacked online and at home in an effort by a conservative media watchdog group called Accuracy in Media to punish their beliefs by buying domain names for signatories and setting up websites in their names calling for Harvard to punish them.

In 1967, universities and colleges adopted the Kalven principles, which states: “The University is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic… It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.”

In essence, the Kalven Report endorsed the idea of free speech but said that the colleges and universities themselves should not take political positions on matters of current interest as it inhibits free speech itself by declaring the “right position” to take. The violation of this principle has led to many campus riots and rebellions by students, administrators and alumni.

Which relates to another destructive aspect of today’s universities… major donors at the University of Pennsylvania are pushing for the resignation of its president and board chair after Penn hosted a Palestinian writer’s conference.

The haunting specter of agenda-philanthropy is not new to universities. “Let us be clear: academic freedom is an essential component of a world class university  and is not a commodity that can be bought and sold by those who seek to use their pocketbooks to shape our mission.” UPenn’s Faculty Senate Tri-Chairs said in a recent statement.

In 1980, US colleges and universities received $4.2B in donations. Last year that amount rose to just shy of $60B and more of these donations are coming with strings attached.

“George Mason University in 2019 tightened donor rules after disclosures came to light that the conservative Koch Foundation received a say in the hiring and firing of some professors under agreements that provided millions of dollars to the school.

A prominent Yale University historian in 2021 resigned from a prestigious program at the university, citing pressure from donors, and a leading donor to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill helped block a proposed appointment of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones to the school.”

If we are to maintain the integrity of our colleges and universities, we must insist on open and free expression, and transparency of sources, given the capacity of flamethrowers to hide in social media. What’s more, we must insist that donors donate only to mission and not to further their agenda.

I do hope UVM learns from their recent misadventure. Allowing the campus appearance of a Palestinian poet and journalist from Israel while allowing peaceful demonstration by those who strongly support Israel’s self-defense should be a manageable security challenge. Citing “security” is an easy out.

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