Free Speech Is a Core Tenet of the Academy. College Trustees Really Ought to Know That.

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

The people who agree to serve on the Board of Trustees of a college or university almost always have a deep connection to and abiding affection for that institution. They give of their time willingly, and often donate substantial material resources as well. They generally take their responsibilities seriously and appreciate their role as guardians of valuable and long-lived institutions that should be managed to serve many generations to come.

But enthusiasm and affection are not enough. Trustees should also understand their distinctive mission. They should be as well steeped in the academic values that should guide universities as they are in the venerable traditions that fill the alumni with nostalgia for their college experiences. They should be as fierce in defending the scholarly commitments of the college as they are in defending its public reputation, fiscal health, or athletic prowess. That means a steadfast commitment to defending one of the most crucial academic values: academic freedom.

Freshmen aren’t the only ones in need of orientation. New trustees should read about, think carefully about, and discuss the importance of academic freedom.

Unfortunately, trustees have continuously shown that they do not always understand and accept the value of that freedom. This was demonstrated most recently by the condemnation from the Board of Trustees’ chairman at Temple University of a speech at the United Nations by a tenured professor.

Last week Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of media studies and urban education at Temple, supported in his U.N. speech “a free Palestine from the river to the sea,” prompting the board chair to reportedly call the speech “disgusting” and declare: “Free speech is one thing. Hate speech is entirely different.”

One might hope that a trustee who is also a lawyer would have a better grasp of American doctrines of free speech, but he also noted that, at any of the private businesses run by members of the Temple board, an employee making the same sort of controversial remarks about Israel would be fired immediately. Alas, given the complications of tenure protections, the trustees could only direct the university’s lawyers “to look at what remedies we have” since it was apparently not so easy “to fire him right away.”

That viewpoint, though perhaps repellent to an academic, shouldn’t come as a surprise. It cannot be taken for granted that trustees will assume their offices with a robust understanding of and appreciation for the core mission of a university. They rarely have the scholarly training or experience of a faculty member, and their professional experience often derives from institutions and environments that have little in common with the world of academe. So it should be expected that the professional values and instincts of a university trustee are different from those of a tenured professor.

The American Association of University Professors was born in no small part out of the struggles between faculty members and trustees. The AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles was centrally concerned with emphasizing that college trustees “are trustees for the public.” The paramount obligation of trustees was to refrain from attempting to impose “their personal opinions upon the teaching of the university” and to respect that they had “no moral right to bind the reason or the conscience of any professor.”

If professors were to serve the mission of the college by engaging in the unfettered search for the truth as they understood it, then trustees would need to accept that “genuine boldness and thoroughness of inquiry, and freedom of speech, are scarcely reconcilable with the prescribed inculcation of a particular opinion on a controversial question.”

One would hope that the modern trustee would understand that most colleges are not what the AAUP called “proprietary” institutions, dedicated to the propagation of received truths or serving as the personal fiefdoms of trustees and donors.

Professors and Free Speech

Read our collection about what happens to professors who ended up in the political cross hairs, and how their universities responded.

Colleges cannot take for granted that every member of the campus community understands the principles and purposes of academic freedom and free speech. They are starting to recognize the need to incorporate into freshman orientation some guidance on the expectations for those who are joining an academic community. Some trustees are eager to send the message to students that they should not shout down or disinvite controversial speakers.

But students are hardly alone in needing to hear that message. Socialization into the academic values that should guide colleges is as important at the top of the institutional structure as at the bottom.

New trustees should get an orientation of their own. They should be asked to read about, think carefully about, and discuss the importance of principles and contours of academic freedom and free speech. As trustees come to colleges and universities from the private sector, they should be asked to reflect on the differences between those institutions and for-profit businesses.

Ideally, trustees can lend universities the benefit of their experience as leaders of a variety of organizations in a range of industries, but they also must appreciate the distinctive culture and values of institutions of higher education and the reasons for and implications of that distinctiveness.

Trustees and students might not always come to full agreement on those difficult issues. But they should be encouraged to think seriously about them before they find themselves in the throes of controversy, where passions run high and competing interests intrude.

And if potential trustees, like potential students, find themselves unable to accept the most fundamental commitments of the academic enterprise, devoted to the unflinching pursuit of the truth, then perhaps they might consider whether they want to take on their new responsibilities.

Keith E. Whittington is a professor of politics at Princeton University and a fellow in the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement at the University of California. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech (Princeton University Press, 2018).

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