The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Intern Blog: Ensuring Freedom of Expression at America’s Universities

August 22, 2016

Throughout my academic career, I had always expected that my teachers and professors would maintain their intellectual professionalism—that they would take a laissez-faire approach to class discussions and keep their personal opinions from entering the fore. Over the past year though, I found that I was mistaken in my assumption.

One day in my Latin class at Hamilton College, we were translating and discussing a letter by Pliny the Younger. My professor, a woman with whom I had—and still have—a great relationship, asked us, “Do you think that Pliny is still a good man even though he owns slaves?”

I gave my opinion honestly, citing the difference between historical and contemporary contexts when analyzing the topic of slavery, but my Latin professor had a strong reaction—she took great, vocal offense. I, along with others in my class, was shocked. On my way out of the classroom, my professor told me, “I want you to know that I am very upset about what you said in class today.” When I asked why, she said “It sounded to me like you were defending slavery.”

Thankfully, this tense situation fostered a stronger bond between my professor and me. She told me about her African American roots and her trouble separating her feelings about that aspect of her identity from her feelings about Roman slavery. I, in turn, explained the rationale for my analysis of her question and acknowledged that my tone could have seemed insensitive. While, objectively, my professor should not have responded as strongly as she did, she did eventually become open to dialogue about a topic that struck a personal nerve. The result was promising: We shared beliefs and knowledge, and we each conceded our mistakes. It was a great learning experience for me, and, as she told me, for her as well.

But most students do not receive the positive outcome from professors that I did, when making my feelings known in the classroom.

A 2015 survey by McLaughlin & Associates reported that 49% of college students said they often feel intimidated out of sharing beliefs that differ or dissent from those of their professors. Student wariness is well-founded, backed by plenty of egregious instances. For example, in 2005, two professors in Columbia University’s Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures were reported to have been “red in the face and shouting” when discussing the conflict in the Middle East.

Of course, professors are people with opinions and feelings. They should be allowed to express their own views, but with great power comes great responsibility. Classrooms that allow open discussion are essential to create truly productive learning environments. Thus, professors must be careful to preserve their students’ learning experiences. Too many are falling short.

Universities would do well to heed the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s recommendations to help safeguard intellectual diversity on campuses. They should start by adopting principles similar to those at the University of Chicago, which say that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” They should also eliminate speech codes that punish “offensive” speech, publicly reaffirm a commitment to intellectual diversity, and invite a wide range of speakers from all ideological persuasions and walks of life. Only then will professors and students be truly free to teach and free to learn.

Every summer, ACTA is privileged to have several interns conduct research for the What Will They Learn?™ project. This is the fifth in a series of guest blogs written by our interns, who chose topics relevant to higher education. Zach is a junior at Hamilton College. He is pursuing his degree in history.


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