College professors have a right to provoke and upset you. It's a part of learning.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen more stories of universities being co-opted for political ends. Academics have been prevented from doing what they do best: conducting research and talking about it.

It’s happening across the nation to faculty from schools large and small, including those from Vanderbilt, the university I lead.

When political interference prevents the nation’s universities from carrying out their missions, America is worse for it. That should alarm not only university leaders like me, but Americans everywhere.

Academic institutions owe it to their students and faculty, and to society at large, to guard against this sort of radicalization and politicization of ideas by any group, no matter where it falls on the political spectrum.


Whether from the right or from the left, calls to silence faculty voices on America’s campuses are entirely inconsistent with the values of a university.

What started a few years ago as outrage over “controversial” speakers deemed unfit to talk on university campuses has evolved to targeting distinguished academics who are prevented from speaking on their area of expertise because some radical – and, frankly, loud and often uninformed – voices are determined to silence them.

Academics are being canceled not because of the content of their remarks, but because someone doesn’t like their stance on a particular issue.

A university, by virtue of its commitment to the pursuit of facts and truth, must welcome and encourage divergent points of view. It must provide a platform for dissent where people can forcefully disagree – with each other and with popular thought.

Challenge conventional wisdom

College campuses must be a proving ground where ideas can be tested and conventional wisdom challenged. It is only through the exchange and rigorous debate of ideas, theories and hypotheses that pathbreaking discoveries can occur.

Just as civil discourse does not dictate consensus or harmony, a university ought not guarantee anyone sanctuary from ideas that upset them. Quite the contrary. True scholarship requires that ideas be freely explored, debated and discussed.

If universities are doing their job, faculty, students and guest speakers will sometimes make uncomfortable assertions. They will upset people by challenging orthodoxy and conventional wisdom.

This kind of provocation is valuable, but not just for its own sake. It is valuable because diversity of thought, opinion and perspective – and the fierce and free exchange of all of these – forms the soil from which insight and understanding grow.

When Vanderbilt Chancellor Alexander Heard was criticized in the 1960s for inviting controversial figures such as Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael to speak on campus, he responded that “young people, and especially young people in college, cannot be shielded from the winds of opinion in our world. The university’s obligation is not to protect students from ideas, but rather to expose them to ideas, and to help make them capable of handling, and, hopefully, having ideas.”

Faculty commits to open inquiry

This year, more than five decades later, with the “winds of opinion” gusting stronger than ever, Vanderbilt’s Faculty Senate passed a resolution committing to “an environment for open inquiry and the vigorous exploration and free expression of ideas.”

Here, it is understood that a faculty member’s views are their own and not necessarily representative of Vanderbilt’s. It is also understood that the university exists in part to give faculty and students – from our campus and from others – a space to freely express and discuss their ideas.

Universities are charged with teaching the next generations of workers, leaders and citizens. To give students information that is engineered to avoid offending one interest group or another is to give them a partial and distorted view of the world – and it is a gross failure of a university’s most basic obligation.

At the very moment when universities ought to be setting a better example for our polarized nation, too many are succumbing to those who seek to shape the world by intimidation and intolerance instead of by persuasion and reason.

As America’s last, best hope for inquiry and civil discourse as a means of understanding, cooperation and progress, universities must unflinchingly demonstrate their commitment to these values.

Daniel Diermeier is chancellor of Vanderbilt University.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Free speech on campus: Universities must defend controversial ideas