At the Heart of the Academy Lies Balance · 12 July 2006

By Robert A. Corrigan--The Presidency Magazine--Spring 2006


It is inevitable-and, I would say, necessary-that universities will push free expression close to its limits. As Kermit Hall wrote in the fall 2005 issue of The Presidency, the core value of American higher education "is a commitment to robust academic debate."1 Robust debate extends beyond the classroom, of course, and students regularly challenge the institution and one another as they speak and act out on major issues of our day: the war in Iraq, national politics, military recruiters on campus, and immigration policy, to name only a few.

All this is, for the most part, as it should be. But free expression is a matter of balancing rights with responsibilities. And higher education understands both very well. The right to take intellectual exploration wherever it leads and to disagree-even vehemently-without fear of intimidation or reprisal can be sustained only when we fulfill our responsibility to maintain, in the classroom and outside it, a climate that is not only hospitable to civil exploration of diverse views, but also recognizes that the venue helps determine the appropriateness of certain kinds of speech.

I think it is worth repeating some thoughts I shared with my faculty last fall, not prompted by any current issue on our campus, but by a desire to set the tone for the coming year. 1 said, "Today, I urge us all to look carefully at ourselves. . . . I suggest this morning that we think freshly about our responsibilities, one of which is surely to provide an environment for our students in which they feel able to express, challenge, and test their views. If they censor themselves out of concern that their views are not of the majority in the classroom, or those of the professor, then we may be in some measure responsible. We can never achieve the educational aims we seek we are unwilling to admit that, at times, we may fall short of them."

Moments of intense controversy often provide the best opportunities to demonstrate and strengthen our commitment to free yet civil discourse. The most dramatic instance of this in my experience came several years ago, when a noisy but nonviolent shouting match between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian students on our campus turned into an international news story Thousands of individuals e-mailed us to protest the called pogom, or anti-Semitic riot. We received intense pressure from both sides to take action against the offending "others." In that highly charged atmosphere the university demonstrated its capacity to look objectively not only at the incident itself, but also at its implications for the campus. Over the course of several months, we developed and then carried out a comprehensive response that has led to curricular enrichment, strengthened relations with two community groups, new regulations for student events, faculty-created classes and programming under the rubic "The Year of Civil Discourse," and an articulated, heightened sense of how we must treat one another. This is how a university draws upon its strengths of intellectual rigor, analysis objectivity, and high moral standards. This is a university learning and teaching-educating in some way everyone on campus.

Far more than our critics may realize, institutions of higher education are working hard and actively to maintain the necessary balance-inside and outside the classroom-of open, civil, and appropriate speech. We do this not because we are being scrutinized, but because that balance lies at the heart of the academy.

ROBERT A. CORRIGAN is president of San Francisco State University.

1. Hall, K. (2005). A cautionary tale of academic and responsibilities. The Presidency, 8(3), 22-