New Academic Year Greeting
Civil dialogue, community, and academic freedom
October 10, 2006
As we begin a new academic year, I would like to share some thoughts about one of the most important features of university life, the subject of civil discourse. I believe that this is one of the values we must defend most scrupulously and actively, and never more so than in times of strong disagreements.
I touched on this topic earlier this fall in the greeting to new students at the annual convocation ceremony. On that occasion I noted that during their studies, they would find that there are many issues within the university about which people feel strongly and disagree vehemently. As I told the students and their families, when people feel strongly about an issue, their passions can influence their speech and debate can become rancorous. And I emphasized that a university is a particularly important place to reaffirm and reinforce the values and practices that underlie civil dialogue: mutual respect, a welcoming openness to hearing multiple points of view, and recognition of the strands of community that underlie our occasion disagreements.
The issues that occupy the campus this fall are particularly challenging because they have the potential of alienating members of the religious and cultural communities of our region and our university—Muslim, Jewish and Christian—thus bringing religious differences into a mix of volatile political disagreement. It is all the more important for us to visibly reaffirm that our campus is receptive to all constituencies, religions and perspectives, and that it is a welcoming place for lively civil dialogue.
In my remarks at convocation, I repeated some of the basic understandings that we all live by in the university: that debates about difficult subjects lead us to gather new information; to reconsider some assumptions we may have made; to consider the historical and factual matters that are relevant to the debate; and, ideally, to come to opinions and beliefs that are more consistent with the facts and more fully expressive of values we hold strongly.
So how might the process of civil debate and discussion work at UM-Dearborn? A commitment to democratic deliberation does not involve the idea that we must ultimately agree about every issue. Instead, it expresses a commitment to the terms of dialogue, and to a common respect for the idea of a non-coercive environment of reasoned persuasion and discussion. The university is founded on a commitment to the crucial importance of academic freedom, freedom of association, and freedom of thought. And we are very committed to preserving the atmosphere of toleration, mutual respect, and freedom of expression within which these rights can best be exercised. We need to remind ourselves of the importance of providing multiple perspectives on difficult issues—for the sake of illumination of complex issues and for the sake of inclusion of multiple groups and perspectives. One of the most difficult issues for our campus community today is that of the conflict in the Middle East. Surely the commitment to providing opportunities for the presentation of multiple points of view is relevant here, given the deeply different perspectives that advocates of Lebanon, Israel, or Palestine bring to the debates.
Finally, why is it so important for universities to defend the principle of academic freedom? Among many reasons, I want to cite two. First, because of the social value that results from the articulation of better theories and policies through unconstrained inquiry and debate. And second, because of the formative value for each of us, and our students, that results from our own freedom to engage in debate about difficult issues. And, once again, these values are most seriously tested in times of deep controversy; we must exercise vigilance in preserving the academic freedoms of our faculty and students as they engage in the difficult work of formulating their thoughts and ideas in politically charged times.
I am looking forward to the “Difficult Dialogues” we have planned for the coming academic year, and for the other difficult dialogues that will happen along the way. The lecture last week by Tom Sugrue was an outstanding beginning for this series of discussions. If we approach those conversations with open minds and a strong commitment to the values we all share, both our institution and our society will benefit.