When Universities Speak

My Colgate Magazine columns are typically written many weeks, and sometimes months, before the magazine reaches the mailboxes and inboxes of Colgate alumni and friends. As a result, these columns ordinarily do not speak to current events. Conditions on the ground change too rapidly, and the circumstances surrounding such events can, and often do, shift. Any attempt to speak to the issue of the day will inevitably lead to essays that are dated. Or, simply, wrong. 

I note all of this because, as I write this column in late November, we are in a moment of great importance internationally. And, relatedly, we are coming through (or might still be very much in) a period in which people have asked universities to speak on current events — specifically to issue statements on the crisis in the Middle East. (Note: Colgate did issue a statement, which can be found at colgate.edu/middle-east-statement.) This has also been a period in which what a college or university says has been scrutinized at levels I have never before seen.

This all leads to the question: When should universities speak?

A small number of colleges and universities, as their official position, do not issue statements about current events. These institutions state that they will only speak on matters that directly impact the college itself. The University of Chicago is perhaps the most famous of the institutions that seek to hold this line. A small number of others have sought to follow this position. But even these colleges and universities have, in other ways, spoken about the Middle East, often by noting the impact that events there might have on students’ well-being.

Such a position — to say nothing about events beyond the campus — would seem to be extremely tempting. It could be argued that issuing a formal statement on any matter might have a chilling effect on the very thing universities are designed to support: that is, free and open discourse and discovery on any and all matters in the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, and clarity. 

Yet, with the Middle East situation, and others, people wished — expected — Colgate to issue some statement. Within days of the Oct. 7, 2023, attack, my inbox began receiving questions about the University’s position. There was an expectation that in matters of great national and international importance — and this was an important set of events — Colgate must stand for something. And, it follows, it must say something.

In the days that followed, after our original statement was sent to the campus, I received ever more calls for additional statements about the crisis — from all sides. I also received calls to make sure some ideas were not expressed on the campus. These same tensions were rising on hundreds of other college campuses. In short, a crisis in the Middle East had become a crisis of expression on American campuses.

Again, one comes to certain questions: When should universities speak? And how should they speak? What happens when statements are issued? Are universities always neutral actors, places that simply provide a forum for any and all debates? Or are universities ethical actors, with positions derived from a set of commonly held values?

We have wrestled with many of these questions at Colgate. In 2017 I charged a large task force — composed of faculty members, trustees, students, and alumni — to consider issues of academic freedom and freedom of expression at Colgate. At the time, I could sense that there was no consensus — at Colgate or around the country — about how expression was to operate on a campus. In an era when it seems people are more divided than ever on many issues, could we come to a basic understanding of how speech should operate at Colgate?

The task force met for more than a year. They considered the by-then famous statement on free expression that the University of Chicago had issued (and that had been endorsed by a number of universities). The task force, wisely, concluded that a simple endorsement of another university’s statement would have little meaningful impact at Colgate. Surely we could create our own.

By the 2018–19 academic year, the task force’s statement was complete and then endorsed by the University faculty, the Board of Trustees, the Alumni Council, and the Student Government. It is worth a careful reading by all Colgate alumni. You can find this statement at colgate.edu/freedom-statement.

Colgate’s Statement on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression offers two paragraphs that show the potential tensions a university faces when a crisis emerges, and when voices on and off the campus are raised. The first offers this:

A community dedicated to a mission such as Colgate’s must stand upon the bedrock principles of intellectual freedom — freedom of expression and academic freedom. This freedom to speak, to write, to listen, to question, to challenge, and to examine any problem that engages one’s interest is essential for living thought. Such freedom is not only a crucial means for the pursuit of knowledge, but a constitutive part of it…. Accordingly, the University should support a climate of debate and deliberation that is open and robust, and must not suppress ideas because some consider them wrong, immoral, or offensive.

The University’s statement, however, also offers this important point:

The Task Force also recognizes that the principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom are not without boundaries. There are certain forms of expression that stand outside the law, constitute no part of the search for truth, and, accordingly, find no shelter here. These include expressions that falsely defame a specific individual, that constitute true threats or harassment, that unjustifiably invade substantial interests of privacy or confidentiality, or that incite imminent lawless action.

There is a legitimate tension here. On the one hand, this University relies on robust debate and discourse. On the other hand, we are a community in which the care and well-being of its members is of paramount importance.

What happens, though, when the University itself is called on to speak? Do official statements silence the community? But when the University is silent in the face of a great national or international crisis, is that silence its own statement — a silence that can harm? All of these questions arose in the aftermath of Oct. 7, 2023.

I offer these thoughts to indicate that I believe we are in an important moment in American higher education — a time when the nation is asking about the values that are held on a campus, and the ways in which those values come into play during a crisis. 

How we navigate this moment will be important not only to our students and alumni, but to our future as well. I hope to find ways to continue a discussion of these matters both on the campus and beyond. And I look forward to your involvement in these discussions. We must, as always, consider important matters with care, intelligence, and grace.