Changes in Leadership Give Red Alert Schools Golden Opportunity to Restore Free Speech

By on May 19, 2010

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Richard F. Celeste will step down as President of Colorado College at the end of the next academic year. This latest announcement means that four of the six schools on FIRE’s Red Alert list will undergo changes in leadership in the next year. Bucknell University President Brian C. Mitchell announced last year his intention to retire from Bucknell’s presidency, exiting Bucknell on June 30; Lawrence S. Bacow has announced his intention to leave Tufts University in June 2011; and embattled Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz plans to exit his post by then as well.

These four presidents, as they prepare their farewells, inevitably will tout such accomplishments as rising freshman applications and ever more competitive entering classes, ambitious capital campaigns, and enhancements to campus infrastructure. Yet, it was also on their watch, of course, that each of these institutions showed disrespect for student and faculty expression so grave as to earn FIRE’s least-coveted honor: a spot on our Red Alert list. You can read more about what each school did to earn this dishonor here (Bucknell), here (Colorado College), here (Brandeis), and here (Tufts).

FIRE hopes that Presidents Celeste, Mitchell, Bacow, and Reinharz will correct their errors and take the necessary steps to get their institutions off the list. We’ve spoken time and again about how easy this is to do—and about the inspirational effect it would have on the campus community to signal that the marketplace of ideas on their campus is alive and well.

If the task should fall to their successors, however, a great opportunity awaits, for with the ascent to the leadership of the university comes the pressure to offer a compelling vision for their tenure, and pressure to chart one’s own course while maintaining the university’s best traditions. The changing of the guard brings with it appeals to the core values and foundations the institution was built on, a reminder that the ideas and values of the university are bigger than the ones who keep them in their care. Invariably, the idea of the university as a haven of free inquiry and intellectual rigor, where contrasting ideas and opposing voices are meant to clash, is held high.

Incoming presidents can use this moment both to break with the past and reaffirm the values of the institution. Judith Rodin did so at the University of Pennsylvania after her arrival in 1994, following the national spectacle surrounding the "water buffalo" scandal and subsequent furor over Penn’s repressive speech codes. In a letter to Penn parents and alumni, Rodin wrote:

For a university to succeed in its mission as an open forum where competing ideas, beliefs, and values can contend, it must also promote a different kind of security: that necessary to intellectual risk-taking. It must encourage the free exchange of opposing ideas and viewpoints, even when some may find those viewpoints disturbing. Today at Penn, the content of student speech is no longer a basis for disciplinary action.

As Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate wrote in The Shadow University, telling the community that the content of their speech was "no longer" a basis for punishment was as gracious as it was necessary. It was an admission of a wrong that needed to be righted. Penn to this day is one of the few institutions to carry a "green-light" rating from FIRE.

If the next presidents of Bucknell, Brandeis, Tufts, and Colorado College need a more recent reminder, they can look to Valdosta State University (VSU) in Georgia. Within weeks of arriving at VSU, President Patrick J. Schloss eliminated the free speech zone that had confined student speech to an area covering less than 1% of the campus, thus helping VSU earn its way off of FIRE’s Red Alert list. Schloss had done more for free speech in a matter of weeks than his predecessor, Ronald M. Zaccari, managed in six years. Meanwhile, former VSU student Hayden Barnes’ case against Zaccari, as we noted recently, is winding its way through federal court.

Of course, we still hope at FIRE that these outgoing presidents won’t simply pass the buck to their successors. Rather than embarrassing them, FIRE would gladly praise them for finally taking the necessary steps to restore free speech on their campuses. It would be far worse to their reputation to simply hand this golden opportunity to their successors, and they will have no one to blame but themselves if their successors’ quick fixes leave the rest of the community wondering what exactly about their legacy should be celebrated.

Schools: Valdosta State University Colorado College Cases: Colorado College: Students Found Guilty for Satirical Flyer Valdosta State University: Freedom of Expression on Campus Limited to Unconstitutional Free Speech Zone