By Scott A. Bass and Mary L. Clark
We are experiencing one of the greatest threats to the university as we know it. It is not about enrollments, revenues, regulation, rankings, or leadership. It is about the ability to engage in unfettered debate at American colleges. It is about the assurance of intellectual freedom, about what can and cannot be discussed.
Colleges face criticism from students and others uncomfortable with the points of view expressed in the classroom and by individual faculty members. Provocative art, revealing films, graphic literary portrayals, and controversial speech are understandably uncomfortable for those who find such work contrary to their beliefs. Yet it is this type of work — controversial at times — that has enlightened the world.
Throughout history, colleges have been sites for the creation of knowledge and its dissemination to new generations. The creative spirit of the scholars in higher education, along with the protection afforded by academic freedom, has ensured innovation. Basic research that appears to have little practical application has helped cure disease, led to breakthroughs in science, and fostered understanding of the world. Presentation of counterculture perspectives, art, and literature has contributed to the next generation of leaders’ understanding of social and political movements. Disclosures of business and government practices have increased transparency and improved quality of products and services.
Many of the things we take for granted were once controversial, even heretical. Political dissent in the 1950s, which created a climate of fear for professors, serves as a not-too-distant example. Yet a key tenet of college has been the freedom to pursue novel questions. In the mid-12th century, the University of Bologna originated the concept of academic freedom such that scholars could pursue inquiry without risk of persecution. With 900 years of tradition, academic freedom is something to cherish and protect.
Our newest and greatest threat, however, comes not from external pressures, but from inside the university itself. Around the country, students have been rebelling against certain assignments, topics, or speakers. Some students object to material presented and readings assigned, asserting that assignments are upsetting, triggering anxieties or violating personal beliefs. After all, some argue, they are paying for the experience and should have a say in what they are exposed to and taught.
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