The University of Chicago News Office
October 23, 2002 Press Contact: Larry Arbeiter
(773) 702-8360 (w)

President Randel addresses issues of free speech, intellectual discourse on campus

In a meeting last week of the Council of the University Senate, President Randel issued and read a statement on the University’s policies regarding free speech, intellectual discourse and the creation of a civil environment that promotes, rather than chills, such discourse.

We take our right to vigorous debate as an article of faith on this campus. But the world’s troubles in the last year compel us, once again, to reflect on what we are prepared to tolerate, if not encourage, under that heading. The Kalven Report clearly articulates the central principle: “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.” From this it follows that the University does not take collective positions on social and political issues, for to do so would be to intrude on the right of individual members of the University community to hold divergent views. “In brief, it is a community that cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.”

Simultaneously, in order to protect that right for individuals, as the Student Manual states, "Acts of violence, and explicit threats of violence directed at a particular individual that compromise that individual's safety or ability to function within the University setting are direct affronts to the University's values and warrant intervention by University officials." This is the University’s blanket policy. And it applies to any and all individuals, without regard to their membership in any religious, ethnic or other group. Thus, despite some recent assertions to the contrary, neither I nor the University has issued such a statement with respect to any particular group. Nor will I, as president, lend the University’s name to the support of any particular group, institution, or cause.

But we must guard against more than physical violence. We are a community, and this entails a decent respect for one another and even a degree of trust. No set of rules or codes of behavior can ever fully capture everything that respect and trust require. Maintaining this community is hard work, and each of us must assume some personal responsibility for it. In a world of increasing tensions and heated differences, we will sometimes be accused of bias or even rank prejudice for tolerating a wide spectrum of views. But the response to views that one finds distasteful is not in the first instance to attempt to suppress them but instead to answer them with the force of argument. The University exists to make possible this kind of exchange and not to take sides in it. Even when accusations against the University are rooted in outright distortions and misinformation, our response must assert the facts and encourage reasoned debate rather than descend to words and actions that might weaken the fabric of a community in which debate is essential to what we are.

We are intolerant of intolerance. We oppose vigorously anything that smacks of prejudice, which by its nature is unsustained by argument. We will especially combat prejudice that is rooted in race, religion, and gender, but not only that prejudice. Thus, we simultaneously commit ourselves to a discourse that both allows and respects difference.

Arguably, the three most powerful forces in human society are race, religion, and gender. Yet universities in the main devote little intellectual energy to understanding them as forces. This university, however, regards these as subjects of the most serious study. The most recent, though by no means the only, embodiment of this seriousness is the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. Here we aim to break out of the binary formulations of the matter of race, particularly the opposition of black and white, in order to consider the deeper forces and tensions that characterize the phenomenon of race and its expression in society. Similar aims could be described in relation to gender and religion.

To the intellectual energy that we devote to matters of race, religion, and gender, we must add our commitment to appropriate behavior in everyday life. We must be sure in our own community to redress the grievances that may have been suffered as a function of race, religion, and gender and to ensure that such grievances are not suffered again. We must ensure the diversity of this community by ensuring that everyone is prepared to subscribe to the principles for which the University stands and is prepared to embrace diversity, whether of race, religion, gender, or, yes, even academic discipline. No part of the University community can think of itself as immune from this concern for diversity. An unprecedented number of programs is in place to increase diversity in the functioning of the our academic programs and in the ways in which we carry on our business affairs and our relations with the neighborhood and city of which we are a part. Each of us must believe that embracing –not merely tolerating– diversity is a personal obligation.

A community gifted in argument can readily produce the hypotheticals that make the embrace of diversity without elaborate qualification seem dangerous if not absurd. But we really do know what we mean here. Prejudice is an ugly word because it describes an ugly phenomenon. We must know it and reject it when we see it. Nor, however, must we allow the mere assertion of it to deter us from our most fundamental pursuits.
Last modified at 02:02 PM CST on Wednesday, October 23, 2002.

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