From the President: Practicing Freedom Better

In the previous issue of Wesleyan magazine, I emphasized higher education’s critical role in defending democracy. In these days of social polarization and hyper-partisanship, some see campus life as a retreat from the bruising realities of political life. You can pursue theater or biology, religion, or economics, without worrying too much what the person sitting next to you thinks of the political issue of the day. While there is certainly freedom in that, it should be remembered that we only have that freedom because of guarantees set by politics.  

In his upcoming book Academic Freedom: From Professional Norm to First Amendment Right (Harvard University Press, August 2024), David Rabban ’71 argues convincingly that academic freedom is a distinctive First Amendment right, one which protects teachers and researchers while enabling society as a whole to benefit from the production and dissemination of knowledge. The American Association of University Professors sketched out the foundational professional norm in 1915. Scholars are free to explore issues and to debate them; in their professional capacities, they can take positions that might turn out to be very unpopular in the broader political realm. Whether teaching the Bible, a contemporary video, or molecular biology, professors should not have to worry that political pressures will force them away from a path of inquiry or a mode of expression.  

Today, though, such worries abound. Libraries are banning books at alarming rates, faculty are being disciplined for their political views, and student rights to protest are being curtailed beyond appropriate “time and place” guidelines. Issues around the right to speak one’s mind have become front and center. We at Wesleyan are no strangers to these issues. For two decades now, thanks to the generosity of Leonard Halpert ’44 and his family, Wesleyan has sponsored the annual Hugo Black Lecture on Free Expression. This semester, historians Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Snyder gave a powerful presentation to a packed house. They began with a critical appraisal of Florida’s various attacks on academic freedom, which on this campus was preaching to the choir. But the speakers went on to discuss how many efforts that fall under the popular rubric of inclusion are also aimed at suppressing speech ostensibly to protect so-called vulnerable communities. Protecting students against speech in the name of harm reduction is almost always a mistake, they argued. Here, the debate got interesting. And this was their point: Debates are only interesting when people are free to disagree, listen to opposing views, and potentially change their minds. Students and faculty were fully engaged.  

“In the noise of contemporary politics, it’s hard to practice authentic listening; in the glare of the media’s campaign cameras, it’s hard to see things from someone else’s point of view. 
But that is the task.”

President Roth

And that, of course, is when learning happens, when we are engaged in deep listening and in trying to think for ourselves in the company of others. This is what I argue in The Student: A Short History, and it’s what I aspire to model as a teacher and a university president. Being a student—at whatever age—means being open to others in ways that allow one to expand one’s thinking, to enhance one’s capacities for appreciation, for empathy, and for civic participation. That participation energizes a virtuous circle because it’s by engaging with others that one multiplies possibilities for learning (and then for further engagement).   

On many campuses this spring, the circle of engagement hasn’t felt all that virtuous: antisemitism, vandalism, and performative silliness were highly visible. At Wesleyan, though, student protesters were nonviolent and got their messages across without undue disruption of normal campus operations. Although we often disagreed, I was grateful that they called attention to urgent issues and our relations to them. 

This fall many of our students, faculty, staff, and alumni will be practicing freedom by participating in the electoral process. They will work on behalf of candidates and in regard to issues bearing on the future of academic freedom, free speech, and the possibilities for full engagement with others. This is challenging work. In the noise of contemporary politics, it’s hard to practice authentic listening; in the glare of the media’s campaign cameras, it’s hard to see things from someone else’s point of view. 

But that is the task. If we are to strengthen our democracy and the educational institutions that depend on it, we must learn to practice freedom better. We must learn to be better students. Our future depends on it.