It is no secret that many colleges and universities are heavily reliant on the financial generosity of alumni, and often even large corporate or institutional interests. While this is not itself necessarily problematic, it can serve as a terrible incentive for administrators to stifle speech that might offend financial supporters or otherwise dissuade them from giving. The very real nature of this risk was made clear with a startling report today from the Grand Valley Lanthorn, a student newspaper, about the reprehensible actions of administrators at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Michigan.
On December 5, the Lanthorn published an editorial opposing GVSU’s increasing practice of naming buildings, rooms, and other objects on campus after private donors. The editorial raised concerns that excessive entanglement with private money could result in the school prioritizing donor relationships over the primary educational mission of GVSU, and perhaps even inhibiting freedom of speech and academic freedom for the sake of appeasing private donors.
Apparently, some GVSU administrators lack a sense of irony. Shortly after the Lanthorn ran the editorial, three high-level administrators reportedly contacted Editor-in-Chief Lizzy Balboa via her personal cell phone and her student email account in order to register their displeasure. According to the Lanthorn:
In the two messages, the administrators said the Lanthorn staff is clearly “ungrateful” to donors as evidenced by its “disappointing” editorial, and it did a “disservice to students” with its disrespect. They suggested that, perhaps because of these offenses, my colleagues and I are undeserving of our merit-based scholarships and should relinquish them “for reissuance to students who would be more appreciative of our donors.” The three administrators suggested further that the editors recant the message of the editorial and that, rather than challenging policy regarding donors, we write editorials thanking them (such as the Sept. 5 editorial found on www.issuu.com/grandvalleylanthorn).
To be sure, these administrators have every right to defend GVSU’s practices with respect to private donors and to explain why they believe the editorial’s concerns are misplaced. But to suggest that students are undeserving of their hard-earned scholarships merely for voicing disagreement with the administration’s practices—rather than engage in the debate and present an opposing point of view—is not only chilling but also counter to the ideals that GVSU should stand for. As Balboa notes:
[I]t seems that some administrators have lost sight of one of the primary responsibilities of a university — no less one that champions the liberal arts. These few are beginning to put money and donor interest above learning and student interest, and they are making personal calls to discourage critical thinking for the sake of placating donors (whom I would like to think invested in our education because they believed in its mission, not in its marketing opportunities).
Even less defensible is the administrators’ request not only that the editorial be recanted, but also that theLanthorn publish articles thanking private donors. To suggest that students should censor themselves and be nothing more than the mouthpiece of the administration is unacceptable, particularly at a public university like GVSU that has a legal obligation to uphold the First Amendment. These demands make clear the administrators’ willingness to sacrifice the ideals of open debate and critical thinking for the sake of appealing to donors—which was precisely what the Lanthorn staff was worried about in the first place!
Fortunately, Balboa and the Lanthorn staff clearly understand the bigger picture, and they show no signs of acquiescing to the administrators’ offensive demands:
What we at the Lanthorn want to encourage and exemplify is open debate. We want to inspire not only honest development of individual opinion but courageous expression of the opinion — regardless of whether or not we agree with it. In the spirit of this debate, I encourage professors, staff and students to submit letters to the editor to express their personal views on this matter or any other (free speech, increased presence of donor names on campus, etc.).
Balboa makes many cogent arguments in her excellent article, so be sure to check it out here.
Image: Grand Valley State University alumni house – Wikimedia Commons