In an email to the college community this past Friday, Colby College President David Greene responded publicly to students who asked Greene why he did not sign a letter criticizing President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. In his message, Greene took a strong stand in favor of free speech at Colby, explaining his belief that taking an institutional stance on political matters would have a negative impact on free and open debate on campus:
My responsibility is to foster an environment on campus that supports free inquiry, a broad exchange of ideas, and scholarly and pedagogical work that is evidence based. We must be a place that is open to the widest array of perspectives, dissenting voices, and unpopular views. Faculty and students should explore ideas freely and not be constrained by institutional positions that declare how we are to think about issues of the day. For example, we should be open to arguments about the tradeoffs of the Paris Agreement from a scientific and policy standpoint, the nation’s role in international agreements, and the appropriate political process for creating commitments of this type. The outcomes of these arguments should not be predetermined by an institutional stance. So on most political issues of the day, I will choose not to affix Colby’s name. I ascribe to the view expressed by the late William Bowen, president of Princeton University, who said “The university should be the home of the critic — indeed, the home of critics of many different persuasions — not the critic itself.”
At a time when political polarization is high, tolerance for opposing viewpoints is low, and too many college administrators seem afraid to challenge the demands of students, President Greene’s statement is a breath of fresh air. We applaud his commitment to free speech and his willingness to express it so firmly at a time when even supporting unfettered free speech is often viewed as controversial (Greene’s statement even acknowledges that he knows his “approach will be unsatisfactory to some”), and we hope that leaders on other campuses will follow in his footsteps the next time controversy arises at their institutions.