Securing Free Speech and Free Inquiry on Campus: Lessons from Charles Murray’s Visit to Notre Dame

Intellectual diversity, academic freedom, and freedom of speech are means to an end, the end of truth-seeking. If a university does not retain its traditional mission of seeking the truth through reasoned discourse, it will not remain committed to freedom of inquiry or freedom of speech.

These remarks were delivered at the US Department of Justice Forum on Free Speech in Higher Education on September 17, 2018.

I am a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame where I have the privilege of directing the University’s Potenziani Program in Constitutional Studies. My program hosted one of Charles Murray’s first post-Middlebury lectures. As you might imagine, the event was quite controversial. It generated a large protest and considerable media attention. But unlike at Middlebury, Dr. Murray was able to deliver his lecture without interruption. I think Notre Dame did a number of things right that might provide insight on how to better protect and promote free speech and free inquiry on our nation’s campuses.

On the afternoon of March 2, 2017, students hung posters all over campus advertising Charles Murray’s visit to Notre Dame, which was scheduled for later that month. That very evening, Murray visited Middlebury. So on the morning of March 3, as Notre Dame students, faculty, and administrators were learning about the Middlebury riot, they also learned that Murray would soon be visiting Notre Dame.

My inbox exploded.

Administrators wanted to know our security plan. Many on the faculty wanted me to disinvite him. When word got out that, no, I was still planning to host Murray, the pressure came. I was warned by faculty members that there would be trouble. There would be protests, for sure, and possibly violence. Some colleagues made clear to me that, in their view, I would be victimizing Notre Dame’s minority students if my program went ahead with Murray’s lecture.

These warnings and threats were disconcerting. Of course, I was concerned about the possibility of violence brought to campus by outside groups. But there was no way I was going to cancel Murray’s visit. After Middlebury, his Notre Dame lecture became a referendum on whether violence and the threat of violence could silence those who make arguments that some find offensive. It did not matter what I thought of Charles Murray or his scholarship: his visit was now about free speech and free inquiry. It had to proceed.

So, we hosted Murray. There was a large protest outside, but it was peaceful. Inside the venue, every available seat was taken. Murray spoke, a respondent from our faculty offered criticism, students asked tough and pointed questions. We did what universities are supposed to do.

All things considered, I think we handled Murray’s visit relatively well. So, let me draw three lessons from the Notre Dame experience on how free speech and free inquiry might be better secured on our nation’s campuses.

Intellectual Diversity

First, intellectual and viewpoint diversity enable free speech to be respected and protected.

The University of Notre Dame has a sufficiently intellectually diverse faculty that we bring to campus speakers from all sides of the political spectrum. Notre Dame’s faculty, like most faculty on elite campuses, leans left. In some departments, we lean heavily left. But there are a sufficient number of conservatives and fair-minded liberals that non-liberal views are given a place at the table.

Notre Dame thus avoids one of the most deleterious effects of the ideological homogeneity that is typical at many universities—an intellectual monoculture where individuals look different but all think the same and have the same political opinions.

The problems that attend intellectual homogeneity become manifest when it comes to speaking invitations. Faculty tend to invite to campus the scholars they know. In academia, just like other professions, professional networks and social circles overlap, which means that an overwhelmingly liberal faculty will tend to invite speakers that are overwhelmingly liberal. That is just how it works.

This helps explain why conservative speakers are usually brought to campus by student groups. At many universities, among the professors who have authority to bring speakers to campus, none are willing to bring in a conservative. Either they do not know thoughtful conservatives or, more likely, they do not want to face the social and professional repercussions of bringing a conservative to campus, especially when it comes to social justice issues involving race, sexuality, and gender. So it is often left to students to invite conservative speakers, and students, regrettably, often issue injudicious invitations.

As I said, at Notre Dame we have a number of conservatives on the faculty. I invited Charles Murray to Notre Dame because one of my colleagues asked me to. He was teaching a class entitled “Liberalism and Conservatism,” and he thought, perfectly understandably, that a lecture by Murray on his then-recent book Coming Apart might nicely supplement what he was teaching in the classroom.

I knew hosting Murray would be controversial—though I had no idea just how controversial, because we invited him months before Middlebury—but I also knew that for every five Notre Dame faculty members who were irritated or angered by the invitation, at least one would find it defensible. There are a sufficient number of conservatives and free speech liberals at ND that the “Protest Left” can’t simply silence their opponents through bullying or intimidation. I was confident that I would receive some faculty support. And in fact, I did. Two of the more liberal members of my department defended the event on grounds of free inquiry.

This intellectual diversity made the event’s success possible.

Commitment to Truth-Seeking

Notre Dame is intellectually diverse because it has stayed true to the underlying purpose of the university: to seek and uncover the truth.

Intellectual diversity, academic freedom, and freedom of speech are means to an end, the end of truth-seeking. If a university does not retain its traditional mission of seeking the truth through reasoned discourse, it will not remain committed to freedom of inquiry or freedom of speech. Freedom of the mind is a necessary prerequisite of truth-seeking through reasoned discourse.

Here, I must give credit to Notre Dame’s senior leadership. President Fr. John Jenkins, Provost Tom Burish, Executive Vice President John Afflect-Graves, and my then-Dean John McGreevy did two things, neither of which involved public actions, but both of which followed from their commitment to truth-seeking.

First, they let me run my program consistent with the norms of academic freedom. As director of Notre Dame’s Program in Constitutional Studies, I chose to invite Charles Murray. They might not have liked or agreed with that choice, but they respected it and the authority that they had entrusted to me.

Secondly, they didn’t succumb to the pressures brought upon them to cancel the event. I have no doubt that some of my faculty colleagues went over my head and pressed the provost and my dean to cancel the lecture. After Middlebury, the easy way out would have been to say that the threat of violence was too great and that we had to cancel the event out of an “abundance of concern for the safety of our students.” Notre Dame’s senior leadership didn’t take the easy way out. Instead, they made sure we had enough resources to provide sufficient security for the lecture and the simultaneous protest.

Notre Dame’s senior leadership team was guided by the university’s commitment to “the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake.” As we recognize in our mission statement, truth-seeking requires “free inquiry and open discussion.” I am sometimes asked whether academic freedom exists at a Catholic university such as Notre Dame. I have never been at a university that offers more academic freedom, and I have been a faculty member at a large state research university and a small private elite liberal arts college. As a Catholic university, Notre Dame is committed to the unity of faith and reason. Indeed, because God is understood to be the author of all that is true, the university is confident in and can offer reasons for its commitment to seeking the truth.

Universities are either committed to truth-seeking through reasoned inquiry, or they are committed to something else. If they are committed to truth-seeking, free inquiry and free speech will be safeguarded. If they are committed to something else—be it social change or overcoming historical oppression or job training or whatever—that something else will inevitably trump free inquiry and free speech if and when it requires it. It’s not that complicated.

Let’s be clear. The reason many professors and administrators call for limitations on speech is that they don’t actually believe that the fundamental purpose of the university is to seek the truth for its own sake.

Student Expectations

Notre Dame’s record is mixed when it comes to the expectations of students, the third point I wish to address. Students in Notre Dame’s Constitutional Studies Program expect that in their classes they will read and debate issues from a diversity of viewpoints. One of our core classes examines contemporary moral and political issues from left, right, and center. In their other core course, students read the founders, debate with Lincoln and Douglas (and John C. Calhoun and Frederick Douglass), and study the speeches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and Clarence Thomas. Students are taught to expect to engage arguments, including arguments with which they vehemently disagree. A result, I believe, is intellectual moderation. When students know that there are good arguments on the other side, even if they are not persuaded, they become more respectful.

Not all Notre Dame students, however, have this expectation. This was made apparent to me during Charles Murray’s visit. A group of students, including one of my politically progressive students, asked the program to facilitate a private student-only conversation with Murray. They proposed that leaders of the Campus Democrats, the College Republicans, and a few other political groups be invited. This was not to be a public event; it wouldn’t even be advertised. Only those who were invited would know about it. The ground rules were that students could ask him any questions or pose any challenges they wanted.

Despite this being a student-requested and a student-initiated effort, none of the student leaders from the Campus Democrats would participate. Apparently, they thought it noxious even to engage in conversation with Murray.

I was disappointed by those students, but the blame lies with the professors who teach them that the best way to win an argument is to demean your opponents. That’s not truth seeking. Those faculty members, their ideological dogmatism, and the administrators who cave to them, are what most threaten free speech and free inquiry on our college campuses. I am proud of the way Notre Dame stood firm for free speech and free inquiry when Charles Murray visited, but until more of our faculties become ideologically diverse, until more of our universities recommit themselves to truth-seeking, and until more of our students are taught that college is where you engage arguments and encounter ideas with which you disagree, intellectual freedom, both on campus and in American society, will be threatened.

 

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