Simmons Speech Demonstrates Progress at Brown · 11 February 2005

This impressive achievement was amplified last week when Ruth Simmons, the president of Brown University, which was shown in a 2003 CSPC study to be the most politically one-sided of the Ivies, devoted the majority of her Spring Semester Opening Address to issues of intellectual diversity and academic freedom.

According to the Brown Daily Herald, Simmons opened her speech by explaining that one of the most frequently-asked questions from Brown alumni and parents of prospective students is "What is the University doing about the lack of diversity of opinion on campus?" She also noted that students of all political views have reported "a chilling effect caused by the dominance of certain voices on the spectrum of moral and political thought" which in her view is detrimental to education and "can become intellectually debilitating."

Simmons questioned why "so many hold Brown up as an example of the way that universities today circumscribe free expression" and said that the question of whether Brown is "suppressing expression, limiting debate (and) fostering hostility to different ideas and perspectives" should be immediately addressed. She also announced positive steps to promote greater intellectual diversity on campus, including the creation of a fund dedicated to bringing a broader variety of speakers to campus.

When questioned directly by a student about the effect of faculty sharing their partisan views in the classroom, Simons responded that while freedom of speech applies to faculty and students alike, "there is a relationship of power that exists in the classroom" and that she would advise professors "to ensure that every student feels empowered to enter into debate."

Simmons also encouraged political and intellectual debate among students on campus, noting that they should "accord respect for the right of all interlocutors to respond" and should "recognize that arguing a position in opposition to your own is a legitimate and desirable strategy of debate."

Though Simmons did not mention the Academic Bill of Rights by name, her speech effectively announced her agreement with a majority of its principles. Among the principles which she touched on in her addressed are:

• Students will be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects and disciplines they study, not on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.
• Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate. While teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views, they should consider and make their students aware of other viewpoints. Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions.
• Exposing students to the spectrum of significant scholarly viewpoints on the subjects examined in their courses is a major responsibility of faculty. Faculty will not use their courses for the purpose of political, ideological, religious or anti-religious indoctrination.
• Selection of speakers, allocation of funds for speakers programs and other student activities will observe the principles of academic freedom and promote intellectual pluralism.
• An environment conducive to the civil exchange of ideas being an essential component of a free university, the obstruction of invited campus speakers, destruction of campus literature or other effort to obstruct this exchange will not be tolerated.
• Knowledge advances when individual scholars are left free to reach their own conclusions about which methods, facts, and theories have been validated by research. Academic institutions and professional societies formed to advance knowledge within an area of research, maintain the integrity of the research process, and organize the professional lives of related researchers serve as indispensable venues within which scholars circulate research findings and debate their interpretation. To perform these functions adequately, academic institutions and professional societies should maintain a posture of organizational neutrality with respect to the substantive disagreements that divide researchers on questions within, or outside, their fields of inquiry.

Simmons' speech marks a significant step for a university which only three years ago witnessed the wholesale theft and destruction of an entire press run of the Brown Daily Herald which committed the sin of running an ad by conservative author David Horowitz criticizing the idea of reparations for slavery. Sixty members of the Brown faculty signed a statement supporting this vandalism and censorship and suggesting that the student editors who agreed to run it were "racists." It is clear from Simmons' comments that such intolerance toward minority viewpoints will not longer be tolerated at Brown.

This progress can in large part be credited to the members of Students for Academic Freedom at Brown who met with Simmons and other administrators several times last year to discuss the lack of intellectual diversity and academic freedom on campus. David Horowitz, who had been effectively barred from speaking on campus for three years, was able to return and his speech was attended by Simmons and by Brown's Director of Institutional Diversity Brenda Allen who agreed to adapt her office's mission statement to include "intellectual diversity." It now appears that the message has sunk in and the Brown administration, with Simmons at the helm, are truly determined to change Brown's reputation as the most ideologically conformist member of the Ivy League.

" I'm glad that the administration at Brown and President Simmons in particular are finally confronting the problem of academic bias at the college," commented Pratik Chougule, the leader of Students for Academic Freedom at Brown. It shows that a concerted effort of alumni, parents, and groups such as SAF can create awareness on this matter. It is important now more than ever to use our momentum to bring about long-term change on college campuses."

You can read a full account of Simmons' speech in the Brown Daily Herald here .

For more information about Students for Academic Freedom or to start an SAF chapter on your campus, please contact me in our Washington, DC office at 202-393-0123 or at Sara@studentsforacademicfreedom.org.

Yours in Freedom,
Sara Dogan
National Campus Director
Students for Academic Freedom