Response to "Letter From the President"
Alumni have legitimate concerns about the state of free expression on campus
I write in response to your “Letter From The President” in the Fall 2023 edition of the Furman Magazine.
As one of the founders of the Furman Free Speech Alliance, I was pleased to see you address the issue of viewpoint diversity on campus and to support Brent Nelsen and Cynthia King’s furman.edu/ondiscourse and indeed to make it a Presidential initiative. This may help counteract trends at Furman that have compelled us to join a host of other universities who have formed alumni free speech groups and become members of the Alumni Free Speech Alliance. Davidson, Wofford, Princeton, Cornell, Yale, Dartmouth, Williams, Stanford, and many others are part of this alliance. However, from your letter it is not clear that you really see a need for On Discourse.
You write: “Universities across the country have been painted as partisan, even as institutes of indoctrination. The people doing the painting rarely understand how universities work or what we do.”
Are the people “doing the painting” ignorant of how universities work? Larry Summers, former president of Harvard, the late Robert Zimmer, former president of the University of Chicago, Lori White, current President of DePauw and many more university presidents have spotlighted threatsto civil discourse and critical inquiry on their campuses. What’s more, they have tried to address the problem. Examine Campus Call for Free Expression to find a list of more than a dozen college presidents who share a concern with the future of open dialogue and academic freedom at their schools and at universities in general.
Do all these academics, who are steeped in the ways and means of how universities operate, agree on how to address free speech issues on campus? Of course not, but none dismiss the problem as handwaving.
You write, “[w]e are learners and seekers, open to exploring new ideas and compelled to champion a broad array of perspectives.” This is not borne out by the evidence.
Your CLP-approved speaker Scott Yenor, who apparently championed a perspective on gender that was at odds with some student views, wrote this in the Wall Street Journal about his campus appearance last semester:
The students were an angry mob, but they didn’t riot or loudly interrupt my speech. Students were restrained, at least in part by the three police officers present in the hall while I spoke. Protesters occupied as much as 20% of the seats just so they could leave when my talk on Dostoevsky commenced, robbing others of a seat from which to hear the lecture.
The students’ questions following my talk reflected their unawareness that revolutionary ideology poses dangers to a free society. Many students flipped the bird at me and my sponsor as they left. Is that Ms. Davis’s idea of respectful dialogue? If students were interested in ideas, then Furman police wouldn’t have had to whisk me away through the back entrance to a waiting police car.
And as we all know, Yenor’s treatment led, at least in part, to Mary Eberstadt canceling her CPL-approved talk. She notes in her Wall Street Journal article, “[b]efore my scheduled visit, posters advertising my talk were twice put up on campus, and twice torn down by activists. One that remained was defaced, the word “Fascist” scrawled next to my face.” As far as I know no one has been disciplined for these attacks on free speech, nor has anyone in the administration even issued a campus-wide condemnation of this behavior. Defaced posters and police escorts for speakers suggest a campus culture that has a problem with open dialogue.
You continue by noting Furman “faculty do an excellent job of teaching our students how to think, not what to think.”
The students disagree. According to data collected by FIRE and College Pulse, a stunning 78% of the 238 Furman students surveyed are very or somewhat uncomfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial political topic, just 3% felt very comfortable. Sixty-three percent felt very or somewhat uncomfortable expressing views on a controversial political topic in a class discussion and 62% shared these feelings when it came to a written assignment. And 78% of students feel some, a good deal, or a great deal of pressure to avoid discussing controversial topics in class. Self-censorship by Furman students appears to be the norm.
Unfortunately, there is more and it is detailed on the Furman Free Speech Alliance website.
On Discourse appears to be a fine effort to address a culture on your campus that breeds intolerance. However, I wish you could first acknowledge the existence of the problems On Discourse seeks to confront.
Jeffrey Salmon ‘72
Thanks for reading Furman Free Speech Alliance! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our work.