George Will, like too many other speakers, is no stranger to requests that he be disinvited from college campuses. In October, students at Scripps College in California successfully petitioned the college to rescind Will’s speaking invitation. Later that month, students and faculty at Miami University of Ohio attempted—and failed—to have Will disinvited from a campus engagement. Fortunately, Michigan State University (MSU) is following Miami University’s lead in standing by its invitation to Will, who is scheduled to speak at the university’s December commencement ceremony.
On Tuesday, MSU President Lou Anna Simon responded to student demands that Will’s invitation to speak at commencement be rescinded because of his perceived lack of concern for victims of sexual assault. Simon reminded students that MSU invited Will because of his distinguished career and journalistic success—not because the university necessarily shares the same ideas and values as Will. She issued a statement declaring, in part:
Having George Will speak at commencement does not mean I or Michigan State University agree with or endorse the statements he made in his June 6 column or any particular column he has written. It does not mean the university wishes to cause survivors of sexual assault distress. And it does not mean we are backing away from our commitment to continuously improving our response to sexual assault.
What it does mean is this: Great universities are committed to serving the public good by creating space for discourse and exchange of ideas, though that exchange may be uncomfortable and will sometimes challenge values and beliefs. There is no mandate to agree, only to serve society by allowing learning to take place. If universities do not hold onto this, we do not serve the greater good. Because next time it will be a different speaker and a different issue, and the dividing lines will not be the same.
Simon’s argument is an important one. To actually provide the services of an institution of higher education, colleges and universities must be able to invite speakers that upset, offend, and challenge, because students cannot learn if their ideas are never disputed. Simon added:
Because at MSU, we are not just a good public university. We are a “public good” university. Choosing the former is easier. But it is in working through times of challenge and controversy that we ensure the latter prevails.
As Reason’s Robby Soave points out, Simon’s understanding of the university’s role in defending freedom of expression “sets her apart from some other university presidents who caved under pressure to disinvite controversial speakers.”
At Miami University, Will’s speech led to constructive dialogue between Will, students, and faculty, and the entire university community benefited because debate was allowed to flourish on campus. In the days and weeks leading up to Will’s address, MSU students and faculty will have a similar opportunity to have a constructive dialogue about Will's controversial arguments.
FIRE commends President Simon’s defense of free expression and debate and hopes that MSU’s entire campus embraces and echoes Simon’s open-mindedness.