August 23, 2017

Academic Freedom

By Brian Barbour (Emeritus), Robert Barry, Giuseppe Butera, Joseph Cosgrove, Matthew Cuddeback, Gary Culpepper, Paul Gondreau, Sandra Keating, James Keating, Robert LaMontagne (retired), Patrick Macfarlane, Paul Maloney, Theresa Moreau, and Jay Pike

At Providence College a group of students took exception to the published writings of a PC professor, and on Oct. 20 staged protests in Slavin Center, the Ruane Center for the Humanities, and Harkins Hall. After President Brian Shanley, O.P., met with the protesters, he sent a message to the entire college community (Oct. 21) in which he reaffirmed the College’s commitment to academic freedom but also denounced what he took to be the ideas of this professor on the topic of diversity. On Nov. 2, a message to the college community from the “Diversity and Inclusion Implementation Committee” stated that “many found the tone of the articles offensive and implicitly racist.” The message mentions no alternative interpretation of the articles. And there is now an online statement, “Breaking the Silence, Faculty Statement,” which intensifies the rhetoric.

In light of these events, we concerned Providence College faculty members think it important to advance the following points publicly:

1) Together with the professor at the center of this whirlwind, we welcome and celebrate the increased racial and ethnic diversity of our campus. We support President Shanley’s sincere and energetic effort to have Providence College reflect the rich diversity of the Catholic Church and of society. The Catholic and Dominican tradition of the College is well-equipped to welcome and educate a diverse student population, as shown admirably by the core Development of Western Civilization program, which exposes students to fundamental principles of human dignity and human liberation, and to the rich diversity of cultures, perspectives, and persons that constitute Western civilization.

2)  Part of the Catholic and Dominican educational tradition is a commitment to the free exchange of ideas even, or especially, when we differ about important matters. The freedom of professors to speak from their expertise is enshrined in the College’s commitment to academic freedom. This freedom is not an end in itself, but serves the higher purpose of empowering faculty and students to seek the truth with a critical and searching mind. And so we must voice our deep concern over any and all efforts to intimidate, shame, or marginalize any faculty member or student for holding unpopular views. Protests and petitions have their place, but should not impede the cultivation of a campus culture of patient listening, charitable interpretation, and mutual understanding. Protests must not replace or hamstring vigorous and respectful debate.

3) The temptation to gang up on those who dissent from the majority is a grave threat to our building of a community informed by the free exchange of ideas. One is at liberty to disagree with the author—whose arguments were directed against ideologies he deems harmful to students, not against students themselves—but there are no grounds to impugn his character or question his ability to teach students of diverse backgrounds. Rather, we know him as a first-rate scholar who loves to teach and loves the students whom he teaches, whether they agree with him or not.

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