Union College President David Harris said the role of colleges and universities is to foster “constructive engagement,” not to facilitate free speech.
In a recent op-ed on a news site focused on higher education and in an interview with The Daily Gazette, Union's new president dissected his approach to campus speakers and the role debate and discourse play in college.
Harris said the purpose of college is to expose students to new ideas and new ways of thinking and to help them develop the skills to understand, question and challenge those ideas. He said that purpose is not served by speakers who espouse beliefs unchallenged or without engagement about where those ideas come from and what underpins their logic.
“I oppose free speech on college campuses,” Harris declared in an op-ed published last week in "Inside Higher Ed", an online news outlet that focuses on colleges and universities.
But his view about the role of speech on college campuses is less about closing down unfettered or controversial speech and more about promoting speech that students can engage with and that advances the college's educational goals.
“When you think about what a college is trying to accomplish, it's not the town square,” Harris said. At a private college like Union, he added, the obligation to allow space for all speech – whether productive or not – is not the same as at public colleges and universities. “We are not the public square.”
On April 29, Union plans to launch a new lecture series focused on the kind of engaged speech Harris sees as beneficial to the college's mission. The lecture series, called the Union College Forum on Constructive Engagement, will debut with visits from Pardeep Singh Kaleka, a Sikh whose father was killed in a mass shooting at a temple, and Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist. The two came together after Kaleka's father was killed in the attack at a Wisconsin temple and have formed an organization that works with students to build inclusive communities.
As the college welcomes other speakers to campus in the future, Harris said, those speakers should expect to engage with students and faculty and be prepared to take “unscreened, sincere questions from the audience.”
“If you're coming to this campus to speak, you are not just coming to speak, you are coming to listen as well,” Harris said.
He said rather than student groups looking to bring intentionally-provocative speakers to campus, they should look to build panels of speakers with differing views or constructive debates. But students also need to consider security concerns and budget considerations, he said.
“It's simple: I just think when you are bringing someone to campus, my strong preference is that you are thinking by bringing this speaker: How can we help individuals better understand a particular perspective?” Harris asked. “Not, as happens sometimes -- 'How can I bring someone to campus who's going to metaphorically bludgeon the other side and get my side excited?' That just shouldn't be our goal in an educational environment.”
Harris' op-ed in "Inside Higher Ed" ran shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump announced an executive order aimed at ensuring public colleges uphold free speech protections and private colleges abide by their own internal policies. Trump and other conservatives have long argued that colleges suppress conservative voices and promote liberal ideas – a notion that Harris pushed back against.
“What gets lost is just how often faculty are in the classroom helping students think about a range of ideas, not just the ones they agree with, that's everyday on every campus in this country,” Harris said.
As recently as last week, a private college canceled a conservative speaker after students boisterously protested the speaker's presence. Students at Beloit College in Wisconsin shut down Wednesday a speech planned for Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, a controversial military contractor deeply involved in the country's oversees wars. Students chanted, banged on drums and barricaded access to the stage from which Prince was slated to speak.
Beloit's president, Scott Bierman, wrote in a letter to the campus the next day that “we need to be better than this,” according to an article in "Inside Higher Ed".
“To those who disrupted the talk: Do you really want to learn at an institution where there are self-appointed editors who shut down free inquiry because they believe they know what others ought to hear? I don't,” Bierman continued in the note.
Harris said it's possible that provocative speakers do find their way to Union or that a speaker riles students in less-than-productive ways. That is why he hopes to set clear expectations now.
“It's not like things will never go off-track, but we want to express expectations early, and it's usually going to be a positive learning environment,” Harris said.
He thinks many people support his idea of constructive engagement, Harris said, and that it ultimately gets to the core missions of higher education.
“I think most people don't disagree with the notion that it would be great to have an environment where views are really shared and people can ask questions and come to their conclusions,” Harris said. “I think that's what this whole higher ed venture is about."