The Corner

Brown University President Whiffs the Ball

The University of Chicago received much-deserved attention and praise last month for its forthright defense of academic freedom and free inquiry. In a bracing letter to incoming freshmen, the university informed students that they should expect no “trigger warnings” or “safe spaces” and that speakers with heterodox views would not be barred from the campus. University president Robert J. Zimmer explained in the Wall Street Journal that: 

Universities cannot be viewed as a sanctuary for comfort but rather as a crucible for confronting ideas and thereby learning to make informed judgments in complex environments. Having one’s assumptions challenged and experiencing the discomfort that sometimes accompanies this process are intrinsic parts of an excellent education. Only then will students develop the skills necessary to build their own futures and contribute to society.

Today Brown University president Christina Paxton has weighed in, appearing to agree, but actually betraying her own weakness. She acknowledges that “freedom of expression is an essential component of academic freedom” but then she bogs down. “As scholars and students,” she writes in the Washington Post, “our responsibility is to subject old truths to scrutiny and put forward new ideas to improve them.” That’s an odd understanding of the word truth. Propositions are either true or they’re not. 

Paxton then rejects the suggestion that students “want to be protected from ideas that make them uncomfortable.” No, she urges, “it’s just the opposite . . . our students have addressed topics that make many people very uncomfortable indeed — racism, sexual assault, religious persecution.” Well, yes, but almost entirely from one point of view. When New York Police commissioner Ray Kelly was invited to speak at Brown, he was shouted down. This made Paxton uncomfortable at the time. She issued some pale bleats about free speech — to little apparent effect. One comment in the the student newspaper dismissed “free speech mumbo jumbo.” When Wendy McElroy, a feminist critic of “rape culture,” was invited to speak, students were offered a literal “safe space” with coloring books, Play-Doh, and pictures of puppies. 

Paxton defends trigger warnings and safe spaces, comparing them to “clubs and organizations” for those who “share similar backgrounds and interests.” Clubs don’t shout down speakers or demand changes to the curriculum to suit a social/political agenda. These are weasel words. Chicago’s Zimmer has set the standard. Anything less is unfree speech and indulges the ”cry bullies” who are closing students’ minds. 

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