President Wim Wiewel of Portland State University (PSU) explained to students in a September 27 email that the University is committed to free speech, peaceful protest, and “robust debate.” This is a promising declaration and will hopefully become just as trendy as Portland’s coffee shops.
President Wiewel’s statement in support of academic freedom comes after a tense year of college protests, many of which resulted in administrations capitulating to demands that they disinvite campus speakers, create race-based housing, and remove faculty and staff. In contrast, President Wiewel encourages students to “provide countervailing views, engage in debate, organize opposition and get involved.” He also calls for a tone of civility, which is an important condition of academic freedom.
Here are the relevant paragraphs excerpted from his email:
…this fall will test our commitment to free speech on campus. The bedrock principles embedded in our educational mission as a public university are to value robust debate of ideas and to protect academic freedom.
We want to foster an environment at PSU where you can express yourself freely and at the same time understand that you will be exposed to ideas that will challenge you, and you will encounter people you disagree with. Thus, a peaceful protest against armed campus police is allowed. So is a peaceful demonstration advocating for a border wall.
When speech becomes offensive, we at PSU don’t respond by banning it or censoring the speaker. Instead, I encourage you to provide countervailing views, engage in debate, organize opposition and get involved. I also ask that you be respectful and abide by our Student Code of Conduct. Our code supports the right of all people to live and learn in a safe environment that promotes free expression while protecting the rights of others.
PSU President Wiewel isn’t alone in standing for academic freedom. In August the University of Chicago’s Dean of Students let incoming students know that the University is dedicated to upholding “freedom of expression” and acknowledged its critical necessity to the function of universities. While it would be helpful if the PSU and Chicago administrators would clarify that free expression is not an end in itself, but a means to the pursuit of the truth, such statements are a step in the right direction.
It appears that President Wiewel wants a genuinely diverse campus whose students have a variety not only of backgrounds but also ideas. The National Association of Scholars applauds his declaration supporting academic freedom. We hope that other university administrations follow this example so that their students may also learn in an environment that debates rather than censors ideas.
If you know of any other college presidents or university administrators who are defending intellectual freedom, please email [email protected] so that NAS may have an opportunity to give them public recognition.