February 4, 2005

WITMO (cont): Brown University President on Intellectual Diversity

Marc Comtois

Brown University President Ruth Simmons spoke about intellectual diversity on campus at her Spring Semester Opening Address on Wednesday.

After her speech. . .Simmons responded to students' questions on. . . the impact of faculty sharing political opinions in class. . .

Simmons began by telling the audience that one of the questions she receives most frequently when visiting Brown alums and parents around the country is, "What is the University doing about the lack of diversity of opinion on campus?" She said that students on campus of all political stripes have told her of "a chilling effect caused by the dominance of certain voices on the spectrum of moral and political thought."

Such a chilling effect is detrimental to education and intellectual inquiry because "we are often creatures of habit when it comes to learning. . .Familiar and appetizing offerings can certainly be a pleasing dimension of learning, but too much repetition of what we desire to hear can become intellectually debilitating," she said. . .

Simmons posed several questions she said should be addressed. . . whether Brown is "suppressing expression, limiting debate (and) fostering hostility to particular ideas and different perspectives. . .Why do so many hold up Brown as an example of the way that universities today circumscribe free expression?"

Simmons said a reasoned challenge to a perspective is "the most important obligation of scholarship" and the duty to enter debates lies with students themselves.

"Unchallenged opinion is a dark place that must be exposed to light," she said.

. . . To that end, Simmons said she would ask faculty leaders to produce a report for the Community Council that will explore "the climate for open debate on the campus" and suggest any remedies for improving students' "perceived sense of freedom ... with regard to expression and debate."

In the question-and-answer session following the speech, Danny Doncan '05 asked Simmons about the impact of faculty sharing their opinions and political positions in classes.

Simmons said though freedom of expression must apply to all, including faculty, "there is a relationship of power that exists in the classroom." She said her advice to professors would be "to ensure that every student feels empowered to enter into debate."

"One thing that's very hard for us to do as faculty is really (to) withhold enthusiasm for a subject. ... I remember when I was first starting as a faculty member, I discovered that the more I talked in class, the less the students did."

. . . With regard to Simmons' announcement of the new lecture fund, Etan Green '08 told The Herald he thought it was significant that the three most visible speakers last semester were Howard Dean, Noam Chomsky and Jesse Jackson. Green wondered if the new fund would work.

"With the significant leftist leanings, will anyone take advantage of (the fund), and will anyone show up?" he said.

Simmons is to be applauded for making this effort. Initially, I believed she was being either naive or disengenuous when she stated, according to the report, that challenging a point of view is "the most important obligation of scholarship" and that it was up to the student to engage in debate. However, in answer to a question, she later acknowledged the "relationship of power. . . in the classroom" between professor and student and recommended that every professor should "ensure that every student feels empowered to enter into debate." This left me to conclude that she understands the problem.

Apparently, so does the University of Colorado, which is taking steps to address the actions of Ward Churchill, "who likened World Trade Center victims to a notorious Nazi" and has lied about being an American Indian for the purpose of adding credibility to his radical teachings. The whole brouhaha started when Churchill was invited to speak at Hamilton College. (via Instapundit and The Belmont Club)

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Colorado should leave Churchill alone. They will turn him into a martyr if they discipline him for his ideas. The more he spouts his idiocy, the more he will discredit himself. Colorado should ask themselves, as Glenn Reynolds has suggested, how turkeys like this get tenure.

Posted by: jim linnane at February 6, 2005 5:28 AM

On one hand I agree with you, but on the other, the only one he's spouting off to are people who already agree with him and vulnerable, naive students. His removal will prevent the latter from being exposed to his extreme and false rhetoric. Your second point is the most germane: a review of tenure policy must be made. Unfortunately, it isn't the tenure process (itself a questionable thing, btw) so much as those who decide who gets tenure that needs to be studied.

Posted by: Marc Comtois at February 8, 2005 10:49 AM