NAS president Peter Wood wrote a letter to Dr. David C. Hodge, president of Miami University, commending him for his decision to invite George Will to speak on campus. Peter Wood has written a series of letters to college officials and trustees at Scripps College, where George Will was disinvited from a speaking engagement.
Dear President Hodge,
I commend you for taking a principled stand in maintaining the invitation to George Will to speak on campus at Miami University this week.
In your letter to the campus community yesterday you wrote, “While the urge to suppress the voices of those with whom we disagree may be great, it is instead our responsibility to engage and challenge those opinions with evidence, reason, and purpose.” These words ring true. I have great appreciation for a university president who summons a campus community to put civil debate and academic freedom above personal views in order to listen to a speaker who has some controversial views.
Miami University acted well both in keeping the invitation to Will (and in being a respectful audience), and in allowing protestors and teach-in leaders to express their views. Both the scheduled campus speaker and the dissenters ought rightfully to have their say on a college campus, which is where competing arguments, reconsideration of biases, and the testing of ideas should thrive.
Your decision in another day and time would have been unremarkable—a day and time when college presidents understood perfectly well their responsibility to uphold the foundational principles of free exchange of views. But today college presidents are more often noted for their acquiescence to the heckler’s veto and the censor’s preemption. This year’s commencement season saw disinvitations to several speakers and others who withdrew after the college presidents remained passive in the face of campaigns to vilify the invited speaker. Brandeis disinvited Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Condoleezza Rice withdrew from Rutgers; Christine Lagarde stepped down from her invitation at Smith; and Robert Birgenau from Haverford.
The Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE) has been tracking college disinvitations and cataloged 192 of them from 2000 through December 2013. The data show a sharp spike in the disinvitations in 2013. 2014 is on track for still more. The disinvitations are a symptom but not the whole story. Sometimes a speaker shows up, as Ray Kelly did at Brown in October 2013, only to be driven from the stage by a portion of the audience determined to silence him. The Brown administration, tipped off in advance, did nothing. A similar disgrace occurred at Columbia University in October 2006 when a speaker was physically attacked on stage. The disgrace was compounded by the president’s decision to punish the offenders with a wrist slap.
Swarthmore’s president took this to another level when a mob of protestors invaded a trustees’ meeting in May 2013. The president ignored the plea of a non-protesting student to restore order to the meeting, and the so-called “Mountain Justice” mob successfully silenced everyone else.
These are a few of the indications that the principles of civil dialogue and rational argument are in trouble in American higher education, at least as prevailing norms. Appeal to force and unwillingness to provide time and space for dissenting views are becoming all too common.
Your determination to let Mr. Will speak, of course, was particularly piquant in light of the decision by the president of Scripps College in early October to disinvite Mr. Will from a program specifically established to bring conservative speakers to campus. I’ve written to the board of Scripps College and to President Bettison-Varga to urge that the invitation be reissued. So far, I have not received an answer to either appeal. I understand that it is hard for an administration to undo a bad decision and that many would prefer to tough it out than to correct a mistake.
Scripps’ mistake is all the more glaring in light of your decision to go forward with the invitation despite some pressure to rescind it. Thank you for standing your ground and showing Miami University students what academic freedom looks like. I trust they will benefit from the example of patient listening and active conversation that you have set for them. I hope that other colleges and universities will follow suit.
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