Over the course of the last two weeks, two university presidents have issued strong rebukes of attempts by activist students to fire or silence high-profile university professors with whom they ideologically disagree. Last Tuesday, the president of George Mason University issued a statement to the students calling for the firing of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh informing them that while it may be “painful” to some of them, standing behind their three-year contract with Kavanaugh as a teacher is “very, very important for the integrity of the university.” A few days earlier, the president of the Unversity of the Arts told activists that they would not be allowed to “suppress” free speech on his campus by ousting long-time faculty member and famous “anti-feminist feminist” Camille Paglia.
Paglia has come under fire from her fellow progressives for pushing back against the transgender and #MeToo movements, resulting in a student-led petition for her to be fired by the University of the Arts (UArts). But in an open letter to students, faculty, and staff posted on April 10, UArts President David Yager made painfully clear that the activists weren’t going to be allowed to silence Paglia (h/t John Sexton).
Yager begins by “re-affirm[ing] the University’s core values, and our commitment to rigorous critical inquiry in support of our mission of Advancing Human Creativity”: “Our core value on integrity and diversity is clear: we are a supportive community committed to individual and artistic integrity and inclusion,” he states. “We promote and respect self-expression, a wide range of ideas and diversity in all its forms.”
That core value, he suggests, is under pressure by the increasing lack of civility in debate and by those who seek to “suppress” speech with which they disagree. “Unfortunately, as a society we are living in a time of sharp divisions—of opinions, perspectives and beliefs—and that has led to decreased civility, increased anger and a ‘new normal’ of offense given and taken,” he writes. “Across our nation it is all too common that opinions expressed that differ from another’s—especially those that are controversial—can spark passion and even outrage, often resulting in calls to suppress that speech.”
But, Yager stresses, that “simply cannot be allowed to happen.”
“I firmly believe that limiting the range of voices in society erodes our democracy,” he continues. “Universities, moreover, are at the heart of the revolutionary notion of free expression: promoting the free exchange of ideas is part of the core reason for their existence.”
Yager then underscores the importance of defending the “open interchange of opinions and beliefs” and “fostering a climate conducive to respectful intellectual debate that empowers and equips our students to meet the challenges they will face in their futures.” These values, he suggests, are particularly important in art schools.
“Artists over the centuries have suffered censorship, and even persecution, for the expression of their beliefs through their work,” he writes. “My answer is simple: not now, not at UArts.”
“Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ 1927 advice still holds true today: that the remedy for messages we disagree with or dislike is more speech and not enforced silence,” Yager adds. The school must defend free speech while also promoting civil speech and showing “respect for others and the value of civil discourse.” (Read the full letter here.)
Paglia has since responded to the letter, praising it as an “eloquent statement affirming academic freedom was a landmark in contemporary education” and expressing her hope that it will be “a turning point in how American colleges and universities deal with their rampant problem of compulsory ideological conformity.”