We are experiencing one of the greatest threats to the university as we know it. It is not about enrollments, revenues, regulation, rankings, or leadership. It is about the ability to engage in unfettered debate at American colleges. It is about the assurance of intellectual freedom, about what can and cannot be discussed.
Colleges face criticism from students and others uncomfortable with the points of view expressed in the classroom and by individual faculty members. Provocative art, revealing films, graphic literary portrayals, and controversial speech are understandably uncomfortable for those who find such work contrary to their beliefs. Yet it is this type of work — controversial at times — that has enlightened the world.
Throughout history, colleges have been sites for the creation of knowledge and its dissemination to new generations. The creative spirit of the scholars in higher education, along with the protection afforded by academic freedom, has ensured innovation. Basic research that appears to have little practical application has helped cure disease, led to breakthroughs in science, and fostered understanding of the world. Presentation of counterculture perspectives, art, and literature has contributed to the next generation of leaders’ understanding of social and political movements. Disclosures of business and government practices have increased transparency and improved quality of products and services.
Many of the things we take for granted were once controversial, even heretical. Political dissent in the 1950s, which created a climate of fear for professors, serves as a not-too-distant example. Yet a key tenet of college has been the freedom to pursue novel questions. In the mid-12th century, the University of Bologna originated the concept of academic freedom such that scholars could pursue inquiry without risk of persecution. With 900 years of tradition, academic freedom is something to cherish and protect.
Our newest and greatest threat, however, comes not from external pressures, but from inside the university itself. Around the country, students have been rebelling against certain assignments, topics, or speakers. Some students object to material presented and readings assigned, asserting that assignments are upsetting, triggering anxieties or violating personal beliefs. After all, some argue, they are paying for the experience and should have a say in what they are exposed to and taught.
Colleges have taken pride in building more-diverse communities as a way for students to learn from one another in a safe space. Yet rather than being a place where divergent points of view are discussed and debated, the campus is increasingly becoming a site of tension and acrimony, resulting in a restricted exchange of perspectives. With nuanced public discourse on the wane and increased volume and vitriolic exchanges in the public space writ large, students increasingly come to college with little appreciation for civilized, engaged, and thoughtfully probing discourse.
College administrators now face questions: Should students vote on the selection of speakers? Are permitted points of view determined by majorities or even the most vocal minorities? Should the library develop a rating system not unlike that of the motion-picture industry, in which we would label our holdings as to level of controversy? Should certain courses be labeled with disclaimers or warnings?
Higher education must be prepared to uphold academic freedom. If we deny one speaker, restrict one book, or limit one faculty member, we have abandoned the very purpose of our institutions. College was never intended to be another entertainment industry or a customized consumer product. The campus is among the few places remaining where ideas — even those that are abhorrent to all or most audiences — may be freely expressed. In the spirit of academic freedom, students have every right to protest uncomfortable points of view. They do not, however, have a right to deny the communication of ideas, expression, inquiry, or creative works in an academic setting.
In this climate, the American University’s Faculty Senate has unanimously approved a Resolution on Freedom of Academic Expression. It states in part:
"American University is committed to protecting and championing the right to freely communicate ideas — without censorship — and to study material as it is written, produced, or stated, even material that some members of our community may find disturbing or that provokes uncomfortable feelings. This freedom is an integral part of the learning experience and an obligation from which we cannot shrink. …
Faculty may advise students before exposing them to controversial readings and other materials that are part of their curricula. However, the Faculty Senate does not endorse offering "trigger warnings" or otherwise labeling controversial material in such a way that students construe it as an option to "opt out" of engaging with texts or concepts, or otherwise not participating in intellectual inquiries.
Faculty should direct students who experience personal difficulties from exposure to controversial issues to resources available at American University’s support-services offices.
In issuing this statement, the Faculty Senate affirms that shielding students from controversial material will deter them from becoming critical thinkers and responsible citizens. Helping them learn to process and evaluate such material fulfills one of the most important responsibilities of higher education."
Freedom of academic expression is what makes college a remarkable place for personal growth and learning. It also facilitates college’s role as an incubator for the creation of knowledge. We hope all college communities will stand in support of this core value.
Scott A. Bass is provost and Mary L. Clark is dean of academic affairs at American University.