University of Iowa President Sally Mason is currently at the center of a controversy because she dared to say something that goes against the prevailing campus orthodoxy.
In a February 18 interview with The Daily Iowan, Mason was asked about the problem of sexual assault on campus, and she said (emphasis added):
I’m not pleased that we have sexual assaults, obviously. The goal would be to end that, to never have another sexual assault. That’s probably not a realistic goal just given human nature, and that’s unfortunate, but the more we understand about it, the better we are at trying to handle it and help people get through these difficult situations, not bury it or try to cover it up or pretend it didn’t happen and to get away from that kind of mindset and to get a more educational, proactive mindset to help people understand when they might be at risk, to help people understand that if it happens, there are resources we have that can be helpful and can help you get through this, that you’re not all by yourself, that it wasn’t your fault, and that we have ways we can be helpful.
Since then, Mason has found herself in the hot seat. Her critics started a petition calling on her to apologize, and the Iowa Board of Regents scheduled a special meeting “to hear an explanation of the earlier remark from Mason”—a meeting at which she was criticized for her “inappropriate” remark.
Sadly, President Mason has thus far chosen not to defend her right to speak candidly about an important topic but rather has apologized and discussed “her own experience of being accosted by a stranger when she was a college student” in an effort to seek absolution. Although these administrative mea culpas may temporarily ease the pressure on a particular administrator facing controversy, the sad truth is that they perpetuate a climate in which everyone must fear speaking freely lest they run afoul of campus orthodoxies.
This incident is reminiscent of when, in 2005, then-Harvard President (and current FIRE Board of Advisors member) Larry Summers came under heavy fire for suggesting, at an academic conference, that genetic differences between the sexes might account for some of the gender gap in the hard sciences. Summers issued an apology shortly thereafter, but controversy continued to swirl, and he ended up resigning the presidency just over a year later.
FIRE co-founder Harvey Silverglate penned a powerful editorial for The Boston Phoenix about the Summers controversy—an editorial that still rings true nine years later and that President Mason, as well as her critics and her supporters, would be well advised to read. As Harvey wrote:
The modern university is the culmination of a 20-year trend of irrationalism marked by an increasingly totalitarian approach to highly politicized issues. Students are subjected to mandatory gender- and racial-sensitivity training akin to thought reform, often during freshman orientation and sometimes as punishment (or “remedial education”) for uttering offensive speech. Faculty members and administrators are made to understand that their careers are at risk if they deviate from the accepted viewpoint. So, even though academic administrators don’t necessarily believe in the official positions, in this brave new world, they must acquiesce for professional reasons.
So to President Mason, we say: Do not back down and continue to apologize for expressing a candid opinion on a sensitive topic. Ultimately, a president who is willing to freely discuss the real challenges of dealing with sexual assault on campus will do far more for the safety and well-being of students at the University of Iowa than will a president who, to protect his or her career, refuses to stray from the officially sanctioned party line.