Early last month, University of Oregon President Michael Schill was shouted down by dozens of students while attempting to deliver a “state of the university” address. Calling him “CEO Schill,” protesters took over the stage with a bullhorn, forcing the event’s cancellation. They denounced Schill’s support for free speech rights as furthering “fascism and white supremacy.”
Per The Oregonian, Schill’s speech — a recorded version of which was posted on the university’s website following the disruption — announced a 50 million dollar gift to the university, which will be dedicated toward “initiatives in data science, an increase in endowed chairs for faculty and support for a new Black Cultural Center.” The speech also included a defense of free speech rights.
Last week, Schill took to the pages of The New York Times to respond to the students that silenced him. In an eloquent and empathetic piece, Schill pointed out the contradictions inherent in the protesters’ message and tactic:
I have nothing against protest. It is a time-honored form of communicating dissent. Often, the concerns students express very much deserve to be addressed. But the tactic of silencing, which has been deployed repeatedly at universities around the country, only hurts these activists’ cause. Rather than helping people who feel they have little power or voice, students who squelch speech alienate those who are most likely to be sympathetic to their message.
It is also ironic that they would associate fascism with the university during a protest in which they limit discourse. One of the students who stormed the stage during my talk told the news media to “expect resistance to anyone who opposes us.” That is awfully close to the language and practices of those the students say they vehemently oppose.
Fundamentally, fascism is about the smothering of dissent. Every university in the country has history classes that dig into fascist political movements and examine them along very clear-eyed lines. Fascist regimes rose to power by attacking free speech, threatening violence against those who opposed them, and using fear and the threat of retaliation to intimidate dissenters.
By contrast, American academia is dedicated to rational discourse, shared governance and the protection of dissent. Historically, fascists sought to silence, imprison and even kill university professors and other intellectuals who resisted authoritarian rule. So the accusation that American universities somehow shelter or promote fascism is odd and severely misguided.
Schill’s entire commentary is well worth your time — especially this year, as the University of Oregon and an increasing number of campuses nationwide continue to grapple with protesters choosing to silence speakers via shoutdowns. (On a similar note, and using Schill’s experience as an example, Howard Gillman, chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, and Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine’s School of Law, explained last month in the Chronicle of Higher Education that shout-downs aren’t protected speech, and that “individuals do not have a right to prevent others from speaking.”)
Schill’s commentary with regard to the use of the term “fascism” is particularly powerful, as members of his family were murdered in concentration camps during World War II. As he writes: “So, when students accuse me of leading an institution that harbors and promotes fascism, it offends me. But does that justify my censoring their speech? Clearly the answer is no.”