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Why Do Universities Exist?

This is a question that many American colleges and universities might not be able to answer today. Or if they do have an answer, it is probably not a very good one.

Case in point: A few days ago, the University of Michigan cancelled a showing of “American Sniper” when protests broke out over the film’s “negative and misleading stereotypes” about Muslims. As Sarah Pulliam Bailey reports, a letter was circulated expressing concern that “watching this movie is provocative and unsafe to MENA and Muslim Collective Letter students…” (emphasis added).

While the film doesn’t place Islam in a positive light, it is nowhere near as offensive as Charlie Hebdo—the satirical French magazine that was brutally attacked for its crude depictions of Muhammad. And yet, while most of the West rallied around the French magazine with the slogan Je suis Charlie (“I am Charlie”), a showing of a film nominated for five Academy Awards is being boycotted on an American college campus.

Almost laughably, the University of Michigan’s Center for Campus Involvement announced that it would show “Paddington” as a replacement—a film about the adventures of a stuffed animal.

Just a day later, the decision to cancel “American Sniper” was reversed, but this ordeal nonetheless highlights a widespread trend at American universities today.

“Academic freedom—accompanied by respect and charity—is at the very center of why universities exist.”

As you are probably aware, there has been a barrage of speaker disinvitations at U.S. colleges over the last few years. Speakers with somewhat controversial opinions or backgrounds have faced protests from groups worried that the speaker’s comments (or even presence on campus) will be hurtful or offensive to individuals at the school. Again, it isn’t unintelligent, belligerent extremists who are being invited and then disinvited to speak on campuses. These are the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Christine Lagarde, and Charles Murray—thoughtful, respectful scholars and leaders.

Along with these disinvitations, those familiar with college life today have probably heard the terms “trigger warnings,” “micro-aggressions,” and “check your privilege.” It seems almost anything you say could be deemed offensive. So perhaps it is best not to say anything at all.

And this is where we find ourselves. For fear that we might upset someone, we have nearly silenced discussion and debate altogether.

However, there is hope. Earlier this week, Princeton University followed in the University of Chicago’s footsteps by voting to uphold academic freedom. As Princeton Professor Robert George writes at First Things, the University adopted the following principles that get to the very heart of why universities exist:

‘Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.’ […] Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, the University of Chicago fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community ‘to discuss any problem that presents itself.’ Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not, of course, mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish. The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University. But these are narrow exceptions to the general principle of freedom of expression, and it is vitally important that these exceptions never be used in a manner that is inconsistent with the University’s commitment to a completely free and open discussion of ideas. In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.

Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission. As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

Will our institutions of higher education be places for serious, sometimes uncomfortable thought and debate? Will they be places where students and professors are truly able to seek the truth? Or will they simply be safe places, where we watch movies about Paddington Bear because we are too afraid to openly discuss complex, difficult issues?

Academic freedom—accompanied by respect and charity—is at the very center of why universities exist. Let’s hope more American universities make the stands that Princeton and the University of Chicago have bravely made.

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