Lafayette President Apologizes for Canceling Visit by Lynn Swann

By on November 1, 2006

A few weeks ago Luke reported that Lafayette College President Daniel Weiss cancelled a visit to campus by Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann, for fear that Swann’s visit would suggest that the college endorsed him. As Luke explained, Lafayette, as a non-profit institution, cannot endorse a candidate, but the College Republicans are certainly able to invite a candidate to campus.
 
Luckily, President Weiss realized his mistake and issued an apology to the campus community on October 25. His statement is worth quoting in full: 
The events of the past week surrounding the proposed visit to the Lafayette campus by gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann have raised important issues for our campus community and for me personally. My decision to deny Mr. Swann’s campaign visit to the College was made, as I understood at the time, in accordance with our operating practice and the College’s foundational charter (Charter of Lafayette College, VIII, section 1). More specifically, my concern was based on the use of our facilities in ways that supported, or conveyed the appearance of supporting, a particular political candidate. Doing so could place the institution at odds with its educational mission and, in turn, with its not-for-profit status. In my letter to the students I explained this reasoning and offered to meet with them to discuss the issue and explore the possibility, albeit remote, of rescheduling the event in a manner that allowed for a more balanced exchange between candidates.
 
Because of the compressed time frame required for the decision (through no fault of the students, the request reached my desk only 48 hours before the proposed event was to occur), I did not have all of the information needed to make a fully informed decision, and I failed to recognize fully the implications of the decision I was to make. Since that time, I have learned that, had the College allowed the Swann visit to take place, both political parties would indeed have had reasonable access to the campus community. The decision I made was wrong and it was consequential, for it resulted in the perception of partisanship and the denial of open discourse on campus—the very consequences I had sought to avoid.
 
As president, I want to make informed decisions based on a comprehensive understanding of all the relevant facts and considerations. Any decision that limits the free exchange of ideas must be taken with great caution and should, rightly, be subject to rigorous questioning. Clearly, the open exchange of ideas on College campuses is an essential component of the educational process; regulation of such events should be restricted to imposing only those standards that are essential to protecting the institution from legal or otherwise unacceptable risks.
 
As a result of these events, I learned that the College does not have consistent guidelines in place so that requests for appearances by political candidates and others can be routinely considered within those parameters. Such guidelines should assure that individual decisions, like the one made here, do not have to be made on an ad hoc basis. It is imperative that such guidelines encourage the open and free exchange of political ideas while also assuring the opportunity for all viewpoints to be heard. As we turn to revising our policies, we must seek the least intrusion legally permissible for not-for-profit educational institutions. By having such guidelines in place, we can support our educational goal of providing a venue for the contemplation, testing, and free exchange of political and other ideas.
 
I am proud of our students. In glaring contrast to the widespread apathy of many young people, they are actively engaged in the political process. They made their request to hold this event in a timely manner, but regrettably the administration did not respond in kind. As a result, we made a decision that was not fully informed and we got it wrong. I have apologized to the students and renewed my offer to work with them to invite Mr. Swann to campus.
 
We must use this experience as a learning opportunity. I can assure you that we will fix our administrative procedures so that such requests can be processed more efficiently in the future and we will develop new guidelines that reflect practices to ensure the open exchange of ideas.
 
Our objective is to promote the free exchange of ideas and to support student initiatives such as this one taken by the College Republicans.
It is the rare university president who freely admits his mistakes and apologizes at length. We therefore commend President Weiss and trust that a similar situation will not arise again at Lafayette. FIRE plans to write to Weiss in the hope that he will take our “Statement Regarding Censorship of ‘Partisan’ Speech on Campus” under advisement in drafting the proposed policy on candidates’ appearance on campus.