St. Olaf ousts faculty director of institute dedicated to bringing controversial speakers to campus — because speakers caused controversy

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St. Olaf ousts faculty director of institute dedicated to bringing controversial speakers to campus — because speakers caused controversy

File under: You can’t make this stuff up.
Banner and Logo on the campus of St. Olaf College

FIRE wrote to St. Olaf College objecting to the removal of Professor Edmund Santurri. (Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com)

At Minnesota’s St. Olaf College, the faculty-run Institute for Freedom & Community is tasked with “[e]xploring diverse ideas about politics, markets, and society," and “seeks to challenge presuppositions, question easy answers, and foster constructive dialogue.” Its slogan: “Dialogue that opens minds.” 

But if St. Olaf’s president has it his way, that tag line may soon be appended with: 

“... but not too much.”

Today, FIRE wrote to St. Olaf’s president, David Anderson, objecting to his ousting of Edmund Santurri, a St. Olaf professor and the institute’s director, over his selection of speakers for a spring series on “Contemporary Controversies.” The lecture that appeared to draw the most objections was by Peter Singer, who has expressed controversial views about disabled people. An appearance by John McWhorter — who has argued some anti-racism initiatives go too far in stifling debate — was also reportedly controversial (disclosure: McWhorter sits on FIRE’s Board of Directors), as was a discussion of The New York Times’ 1619 Project. 

As we wrote in our letter, FIRE is concerned not only that St. Olaf’s treatment of Santurri runs counter to its strong free speech and academic freedom promises. The college’s silencing of dissenting views chills other students and faculty, suggesting they may not even invite or discuss contrarian viewpoints, lest they face administrative punishment.

Notably, St. Olaf is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, whose standards require accredited institutions to be “committed to freedom of expression and the pursuit of truth in teaching and learning.”

While private institutions are welcome to elevate other values over those of free speech or academic freedom, they must not be duplicitous in making promises they will not keep.

This is the second recent instance of a religious college purportedly committed to free expression shutting down an initiative committed to hosting diverse viewpoints. Saint Vincent College in Pennsylvania also shut down dialogue — staging a takeover of its Center for Political and Economic Thought — following a controversial speaking appearance there earlier this month.

FIRE has seen a recent uptick in religious colleges that promise free expression quickly reneging on those commitments when controversies arise. While private institutions are welcome to elevate other values over those of free speech or academic freedom, they must not be duplicitous in making promises they will not keep. 

Or, in terms Saint Vincent and St. Olaf administrators might more readily understand: 

“Thou shalt not bear false witness.”

FIRE has given St. Olaf until May 3 to respond to our letter. We’ll keep you posted.


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