UNC trustee on campus speech: ‘We cannot let fear fester where learning should flower.’

·3 min read

The purpose of higher education in a democracy is to promote the discovery, refinement and sharing of knowledge and wisdom through free and open inquiry and debate. Censorship, dogma and intolerance have no place in our universities.

At our July 28 meeting, Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — liberals, moderates, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans and independents — reiterated the commitment to the freedom of thought, inquiry and expression among our faculty, staff and students.

UNC Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees unanimously adopted a resolution reaffirming the university’s longtime commitment to academic freedom — a principle doubted in some quarters of American society and attacked in others, but vital to all.

It’s not an issue unique to UNC-CH; it’s an issue that has surfaced on campuses nationwide.

The UNC-CH board, of which I am a member, declared its fidelity to protecting free inquiry and cherishing a diversity of viewpoints on campus, embracing principles the University of Chicago made famous more than half a century ago in building on free-thinking tenets dating to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.

Among the signatories of the landmark 1967 Kalven Report on the Chicago Principles, as they came to be known, was renowned historian and civil rights activist John Hope Franklin. He and his colleagues concluded: “A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community.”

UNC-CH has endured a few notable instances of intellectual intolerance, including the notorious Speaker Ban Law of 1963, which UNC System President Bill Friday risked his career in opposing as violations of academic freedom and free speech.

Today, our world-class faculty recognizes that it must help maintain an environment in which academic freedom flourishes. Our Faculty Council’s 2018 Statement on Speech adopted the Chicago Principles, declaring that the “ability to speak freely, debate vigorously, and engage deeply with differing viewpoints is the bedrock of our aspirations at Carolina.”

Today, the trustees agree entirely with the faculty’s admirable commitment to free speech, inquiry and debate. A recent faculty-led survey of students at UNC-CH and other public universities in North Carolina shows why a renewed dedication to fundamental principles is warranted.

The 2022 report on Free Expression and Constructive Dialogue at the University of North Carolina (System) found that “a significant number of students have concerns about stating their sincere political views in class and have self-censored because they were concerned about the potential reactions, especially from peers.”

We cannot let fear fester where learning should flower.

The study also found that “while most students think disruptive actions against people who have opposing viewpoints is inappropriate, a significant number of respondents see these actions as appropriate.”

We cannot abide censorship and intimidation where freedom should blossom.

The study report recommended adopting plans tailored to each state university “to improve the campus culture for free expression and constructive dialogue.”

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, has issued a statement pledging to continue exploring “how to fulfill our responsibility to be a place where ideas and opinions are argued, tested and freely expressed.”

The report also challenged trustees at each public North Carolina university to do three things:

Publicly support academic freedom, free expression and constructive dialogue.

Defend academic freedom when controversies occur.

Support research into free expression, constructive dialogue, etc.

The trustees of UNC-CH are committed unanimously and fully to carrying out these important duties in the forthright traditions of John Hope Franklin, Bill Friday, the faculty, and many other champions of free thought and expression.

Perrin W. Jones is a UNC Chapel Hill graduate and trustee. He’s an anesthesiologist in Greenville, N.C.