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Colgate University professor Stanley Brubaker on Colgate’s new statement of commitment to free expression

FIRE’s Mary Zoeller recently caught up with professor Stanley Brubaker, a professor of Political Science at Colgate University, in an email interview to discuss his recent work as a member of the university’s Task Force on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression. The task force, organized by the university president, was charged with “reviewing the history of academic freedom and freedom of expression policies and developments at Colgate University and drafting a statement on academic freedom and the freedom of expression as it relates to all sectors of the university’s community.”

According to a Colgate update, the task force sought to expand upon the University of Chicago’s well-known “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression” (better known as the “Chicago Statement”), as well as to draft a statement that was unique to Colgate. An eloquent statement that analyzes both Colgate’s historical commitment to free expression and academic freedom, as well as the university’s other shared values, “Colgate’s Commitment to Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom” is a resounding endorsement of principled free speech.

With members from the faculty, staff, Board of Trustees, and student body, the task force was representative of the entire Colgate community. After finalizing “Colgate’s Commitment to Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom,” the group proposed the statement to three important campus constituencies for their approval. In early October, the process came to a conclusion when the final stakeholder, the Student Government Association, endorsed the Commitment that both the Board of Trustees and the Faculty Governance had previously approved.

With its adoption, Colgate becomes the 48th institution or faculty body to adopt a free speech policy statement, and only the second private institution in the state of New York to do so. The Commitment seeks to guide the community’s balance of free expression and other values, but does not compromise: “Freedom of expression should not be stifled in service of other values; however, while this freedom must be defended, the Task Force urges all of us to cultivate by example the values of the Colgate community.”

Further, the Commitment echoes a message with which FIRE fully agrees: free expression is a tool to be used to empower all voices, especially the marginalized. The Commitment states: “ . . . [freedom of expression] is an indispensable tool for enabling those with underrepresented or unpopular views to be heard. Throughout history — from the abolitionist newspapers, to demonstrations and speeches for women’s rights, to the marches, sit-ins and oratory of the civil rights movement — freedom of expression has been a vital means of social advancement.”

Mary: Professor Brubaker, thanks for being with us today. Why don’t we start with you telling us a little bit about how you got involved with the task force. What were some of the initial reasons you became interested in advocating for a free speech statement at Colgate?

Professor Brubaker: For years, many of us felt that the range of permissible speech at Colgate had become unduly constrained. I say “permissible” not in the sense that direct sanctions would be immediately visited upon the miscreant, but the atmosphere was suffocating. The root problem remains the lack of intellectual diversity among faculty (a recent study showed the ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans among the faculty as 19:1). Alas, as so often, the root problem is the most intractable. But we could at least establish that people were free to speak. That seemed doable.  

Mary: You were involved at nearly every step of the long process to getting a free speech statement adopted at Colgate, beginning with a petition from an ad hoc group of concerned faculty in the fall of 2016. Ultimately, the faculty decided to urge the president of the university to create a task force to consider this important issue. What different approaches were considered by the faculty before ultimately deciding to draft a statement on Colgate’s commitment to free expression?

Professor Brubaker: The concerned faculty who began this process thought of different angles: A “sense of the faculty” resolution affirming the scope of the First Amendment? Simply endorse the Chicago principles? Write a new statement? I concluded we were most likely to succeed if we simply asked that the principles already on the books [the faculty and student handbooks] be reaffirmed. These three statements in the faculty and student handbooks — covering academic freedom, rights of students in the classroom, and general campus expression — were indeed quite good and had been affirmed over the last half century by one or the other of three constituent bodies: the board, the faculty, and the student senate. The student senate, backed by virtually all student leaders, overwhelmingly supported the reaffirmation; I’m sure that the board would have as well. But in the end, the faculty decided to recommend that the president name a task force to draft a statement meant to endure but also to confront the particular circumstances of our time.  

Mary: Tell us a little bit more about the discussion of competing values in the statement. Often, critics argue that freedom of expression should not take priority over other values, such as diversity and inclusion. Why is it so important for an institution of higher education like Colgate to resist this urge, and reaffirm an unwavering commitment to free expression?

Professor Brubaker: That’s a great question, Mary, and I think it is here that Colgate made its greatest contribution to the debate. There are two great dangers to free expression: The first, and most common danger, is to understand diversity as a set of values to which everyone in the community, in the name of social justice, must profess allegiance — or face exile; the result is to assemble people from diverse backgrounds to sing the same song, rather like that sappy old Coke commercial, or worse, the “diverse” collection of students and faculty at Middlebury, equally ignorant about his work, shouting down Charles Murray.  The second and opposite danger is to think that all values are subjective, and that “hence” (with non-sequiturs) the greatest evil is to impose one’s values on another and the greatest good is freedom.

We learned to keep our eyes trained on the central purpose of the university, the pursuit of knowledge. Thus, our statement embraces diversity (I’ll quote now) “not only so that we may accord all members the concern and respect that they are due, nor only so that our members can take their place as leaders in an increasingly complex world — worthy as these goals are. Rather, our community embraces diversity because we recognize how much we need one another in order to consider new perspectives and extend the limits of our understanding.” Likewise, we embrace freedom, not because it is the highest good, nor merely because it is the essential “means” towards the end of attaining knowledge, but rather because it is a constitutive part of knowledge; (quoting again) “propositions learned by rote and protected from challenge do not further our pursuit of knowledge or our attainment of understanding.”

Mary: Is there anything else you want our readers to know?

Professor Brubaker: Every institution is distinct, but if I were to draw any lessons from my experience at Colgate that might be useful elsewhere, it would amount to three points.

1) Hold your university accountable to commitments it has already made.  Most have pledged allegiance to the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP’s) 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure and its 1970 Interpretive Comments. If so, you can simply ask: are you serious about this? That’s enough to get the issue onto the agenda.

2) Don’t get locked into the battle of principles — freedom v. inclusivity — both compete for the same space. Distinguish between a) free speech that the university protects; that is a matter of principle. And b) intellectual and moral virtues to be cultivated (including inclusivity); these are a matter of aspiration.

3) Never give up. Not when you think you’ve lost, and especially, not when you think you’ve won.

For readers who are interested in learning more about professor Brubaker’s thoughts on freedom of expression and academic freedom, check out his piece in Vox Facultatis, the Colgate AAUP chapter’s monthly newsletter, entitled “The Spirit that is Not Too Sure it is Right.”

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