GUEST COLUMN: Teach university students how to think instead of what to think

By: Gene Budig and Alan Heaps
June 19, 2014 Updated: June 19, 2014 at 8:35 am

Based on conversations with 12 university and college presidents, a continuation of liberal intolerance on campus appears likely in the 2014-2015 school year.

Such unfortunate acts were carried out last spring at Brandeis, Haverford, Rutgers and Smith.

In each case, liberals silenced invited guests to commencements because they found them to be politically objectionable.

One such invitee was former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, now a distinguished professor at Stanford University. While one may or may not agree with her politics, her integrity and commitment to public service are unquestioned.

Those leaders we contacted fear that continuance of such activities will undermine the fundamentals of academic freedom, a cornerstone of academia.

And the impact will be a lessening in the fundamental belief in the importance of colleges and universities everywhere, further chipping away at their reputations for intellectual freedom, open discourse and unbiased research.

Eleven of the 12 admitted to being distressed by seeing college commencement speakers withdraw, or have invitations rescinded, after small numbers of outspoken students and faculty members objected.

The twelfth was irate that senior faculty members were involved in these actions since they had enjoyed the fruits of academic freedom. He also said too many under graduates are too easily lead and swayed.

Michael Bloomberg, businessman and former mayor of New York City, at this spring's commencement speech at Harvard, said that "As a former chairman of Johns Hopkins, I believe a university's obligation is not to teach students what to think, but to teach students how to think."

This requires respectfully listening to all sides - left, right and in between - and weighing arguments without prejudging them. Without this, higher education will produce minds unable to make their own decisions, failing both the students and society, and eventually eroding public support.

Hearing differing views is part of the learning process at all levels of higher education. So said Bill Bowen, the former president of Princeton University. He blasted students at Haverford College who campaigned against Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley.

More than 40 students and three professors had protested Birgeneau's invitation to speak, objecting to his handling of a 2011 incident at Berkeley. Bowen said the students were "immature" and "arrogant." His remarks drew a standing ovation.

The surveyed leaders have every intention of standing against intolerance, and they will reinforce time-tested academic freedom and values.

They are confident that their governing boards will support them. Working with them and duly constituted campus committees to select speakers, they will not be bullied by a few and ignore the rights of the majority.

The college heads said students are restive today because of a lack of good jobs and mounting debt. Still the great majority believes in the long-term value of a college degree and the campus experience of intellectual freedom.

As the former mayor of New York City also said:

"Scientific skepticism is healthy. But there is a world of difference between scientific skepticism that seeks out more evidence and ideological stubbornness that shuts it out."

What we believe is that presidents, trustees and others in higher education community will stand firm on the time-honored values of academic freedom.

But we can also anticipate that a small minority of ill-mannered faculty and students will continue with loud voices that will make their peers in the majority uneasy.

The media will delight in it, overstating its significance on cable news and in student publications.

In no way do we envy the college presidents of 2015, but we do have confidence in higher education and their long-held value systems, ones that are certain to continue to be tested in the future.

Too often superficiality and intolerance runs deep but we look forward to a time when the commitment to intellectual freedom runs even deeper.


Budig is past president/chancellor at Illinois State University, West Virginia University, and the University of Kansas and of Major League Baseball's American League. Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.

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