Leadership & Governance

In Defending Free Speech, Says Teresa Sullivan, ‘the Middle Ground Is the High Ground’

March 13, 2017

Steve Helber, AP Images
Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the U. of Virginia
Recent protests, even violent ones, over controversial speakers on campuses should encourage higher-education administrators to defend free speech, says Teresa A. Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia.

And that includes speech that some find “intolerant and offensive,” she said here Sunday at the American Council on Education’s annual gathering. Her half-hour keynote, “When the Middle Ground Is the High Ground: Free Speech and the University,” served as a call for institutions both public and private to uphold freedom of speech.

“Any restriction on it seems incompatible with the fundamental values of higher education,” said Ms. Sullivan, who has been UVa’s president since 2010 and plans to step down next year.

Students, she added, can be the biggest opponents of free speech without realizing it when they demand to be protected from speech they find offensive. But doing so does them a disservice, she said, because “we’re leaving them unprepared for the intellectual and social fray that they will enter the moment they step off our campuses.”

“Any restriction on it seems incompatible with the fundamental values of higher education.”
Ms. Sullivan knows controversy. In early November, she faced criticism for including a statement from Thomas Jefferson in a message to the campus following the presidential election. When she brought this incident up on Sunday night, the audience of hundreds in the darkened ballrooms giggled quietly.

In a letter, Ms. Sullivan’s critics had questioned why she would use Jefferson as a “moral compass,” given his connection to slavery, and asked to her to avoid quoting him again. Later, she said she had to push back against efforts from a “surprising number of people” who urged her to fire the faculty members who signed the letter and expel the students. Again, the audience laughed, one of the few times it made itself known during Mrs. Sullivan’s lecture.

“I had to explain that, in a free-speech environment, those faculty and students had just as much right to express their opinions as I did,” Ms. Sullivan said.

In her speech, Ms. Sullivan also touched on recent campus shakeups, including the violent protest at the University of California at Berkeley last month ahead of a planned speech by Milo Yiannopoulos.

And she lamented a protest that turned physical earlier this month at Middlebury College over Charles Murray, a political scientist and author accused of promoting racist ideas. One professor suffered injuries during that incident.

“What’s all so troubling is that the protesters wanted to shut down Murray without even knowing what he would said, potentially robbing themselves of the opportunity to refute his views,” Ms. Sullivan said.

Ms. Sullivan also mentioned cases in which conservatives had protested campus visitors with views they opposed. Those included a February 2015 incident at Texas Tech University involving Angela Davis, a political activist and a professor emeritus at University of California at Santa Cruz, in which some students pushed the university to rescind an invitation for her to speak. She also pointed to an April 2015 incident in which Kean University backed away from its choice of the musician Common as its commencement speaker. Kean’s decision came after the choice drew protests from state police officers.

“As leaders in higher education, when free expression seems to be under attack from all sides of the political spectrum, we can set the right example by standing in the middle ground to defend it on all sides,” Ms. Sullivan said.

To that end, she encouraged university leaders to denounce racist, sexist or homophobic insults and other “forms of bias on our campuses.” She also said efforts to increase diversity among faculty, staff and students should continue. And Ms. Sullivan said continuing conversation about the “issues we face as educators” is necessary.

“Candid discussion is the first step toward solutions,” she said.

Chris Quintana is a breaking-news reporter. Follow him on Twitter @cquintanadc or email him at chris.quintana@chronicle.com.