Great universities share a common, fundamental and defining mission: to seek knowledge and deepen our understanding of ourselves, the world and our place within it. The core of my talk today addresses the elements and boundaries of this quest. To do so, however, I must offer a few unavoidably simplified predicate remarks about the character of our search for knowledge—or to put it another way, about the relationship between metaphysics and epistemology; between what there is to know and how we come to know it.
Begin with the fundamental distinction between knowledge and mere belief: however confident we may be of our beliefs or convictions, they may yet be false; and, when they are, we cannot claim to have knowledge. I put aside here the interaction of Faith (with a capital “F”) with both knowledge and belief (with a small “b”); suffice it to say that, as I use it here, the term “belief” is not a synonym for Faith, where the word is capitalized.
So, the conventional view is that one has knowledge only if our beliefs are true. But even true beliefs may not constitute knowledge. This is so whenever the reasons or justifications for our beliefs are insufficient to warrant them. In such cases, the simple fact that our belief happens to be true does not support a claim to knowledge; knowledge requires both true belief and adequate justification.
Having said this, let us move from a short course in epistemology to metaphysics. Philosophers distinguish between two very broad ways of understanding the relationship between, on the one hand, the world or reality and, on the other, our beliefs about it—or, as the distinction often is put, between world and mind. The “metaphysical realists,” as they are called, hold that the world is independent of our beliefs about it and our practices of engaging with it. In their view, truth does not depend on what we believe; instead our beliefs are true insofar as they coincide or represent correctly the way the world is. In contrast, the large number of theories captured under the rubric of “anti-realism” share the proposition that the world is not completely independent of our beliefs about it or our practices of engaging with it.
Each of these views draws traction from a different domain of inquiry. In the natural sciences, researchers seek to uncover the laws that govern, among other things, the nature of space and time and the behavior of atoms. Consciously or unconsciously, most scientists implicitly embrace metaphysical realism in that they take their project to be describing and explaining a world whose existence and character is independent of what, at any given time, they happen to believe about it. By contrast, very few reflective legal scholars believe that the rights and duties of citizens prescribed in our political community are similarly independent of the practices and beliefs of legal officials—for most scholars in this area share the view that the content of the law depends at least in part on what judges believe or claim it is.
These competing threads are woven through the history of philosophy and, of course, various blends of the two broad approaches described are possible. For example, the scientific study of color inescapably recognizes its mind dependence, and so even the picture of the natural scientist as paradigmatically embracing metaphysical realism is problematic. And the same can be said of the claim that legal scholarship is inevitably grounded in anti-realism.
For what it is worth, I note as a predicate to my discussion of the pursuit of knowledge within the university that I share a view—both philosophical and theological—that reality is organic, that it evolves as we do, and that its nature and character are determined in part by the manner of its realization in our lives and in our practices. On this view, even though reality in some sense is independent of our beliefs and practices, its fullness depends in part on its realization in our lives: how we act in the world and what we perceive the world to be. On this view, a dual evolution is in process: there is an organic evolution in reality itself prompted over time by the interaction of that which is divinely bestowed and the working out of that gift in the living history of humanity, and there is a parallel evolution in our understanding of the increasing fullness of reality as human consciousness and our capacities of comprehension are developed and honed. In short, it is my view that both the object of our understanding and our understanding itself are evolving constantly. At the same time, we must be conscious of the possibility of error: it sometimes will be the case that the object of our understanding and our understanding itself are not evolving in a parallel way, leading to misunderstanding and mistaken beliefs. For such instances we must develop both theories of error and tools to limit it.
In this address, I will not expand on some of the deeper issues raised by all this; greater minds than mine have wrestled with them since the time of the Pre-Socratics. My purpose in these preliminary remarks has been simply to state my own predicates for a discussion of the role of great universities in contributing to the growth of knowledge, deepening our understanding of the world and discovering truth and its nature.
It is axiomatic that the core mission of the university is the enlargement of what we know, how deeply we know and the number of those who know. In pursuing this mission, the research university professes and practices various attributes, the most important of which we associate with the process of rigorous inquiry and reasoned skepticism, based on articulable norms that are not fixed and given, but are themselves subject to reexamination. In the best of our universities, faculty characteristically are committed to subjecting even—indeed, especially—their own claims as well as the norms that govern their research to this process of critical reflection. This critical reflection requires, among other things, making sources accessible where they are relevant and responding to questions and challenges according to the standards appropriate for the particular domain.
Increasingly, our great universities are modern sanctuaries, the sacred spaces sustaining and enhancing scholarship, creativity and learning. I use the word sanctuary here not to signal detachment from the world, for our universities increasingly are in and of their surroundings; rather I use the term to signal both the specialness of what our great universities do, and the fragility of the environment in which it is done. What makes these sanctuaries special is the core commitment to free, unbridled and ideologically unconstrained discourse in which claims of knowledge are examined, confirmed, deepened or replaced. In this regard, I emphasize the importance of acting aggressively and with every means at our disposal to secure and protect every element essential to the general enterprise of free inquiry, the centrality of standards and the reciprocal commitments attendant to citizenship within the sanctuary.
Today I will confine my discussion to just one element of this process of continuous testing—the role in the sacred space of what I will call “dialogue,” a process which embraces the instructive power of alternative viewpoints as an often inadequately appreciated but nevertheless substantial feature of the environment in which knowledge is created, extended and transmitted. As I conceive it, dialogue is characterized by a commitment to understand and engage, through reasoned and civil intercourse, even the most provocative challenges to one’s point of view. This entails listening and respecting, accepting what is well founded in the criticisms offered by others and defending one’s own position, where appropriate, against them; it is both the offer of and the demand for argument and evidence. Such dialogue advances not only the university’s research mission but also its educational mission to move knowledge intergenerationally—because, at the end of the day, what separates education from indoctrination is the principle that one must defend one’s positions by argument and evidence, not by force or subterfuge. Thus, across the enterprise the university represents, dialogue (as I use the term) plays a pivotal role.
Cardinal Newman put this notion beautifully when he wrote:
a true university is a place “in which the intellect may safely range and speculate, sure to find its equal in some antagonistic activity, and its judge in the tribunal of truth. It is a place where inquiry is pushed forward, and discoveries verified and perfected, and rashness rendered innocuous, and error exposed, by the collision of mind with mind, and knowledge with knowledge.”
In setting forth this conception, I emphatically reject any characterization of dialogue grounded in agnosticism or relativism about truth and objectivity, or inconsistent with the fundamental standard of rational inquiry. It is given that, at the heart of the process of ongoing testing which characterizes the university as a sanctuary of thought is the notion that no humanly conceived “truth” is invulnerable to challenge; still, this axiom need not—does not—mean that the pursuit of truth requires that all questions must be kept open at all times. We can and do reach certainty on matters (subject, of course, to the emergence of new evidence). That having been said, my claim is that what I am calling dialogue frequently is a useful tool in seeking truth. And, experience shows that powerful challenges may come from unexpected quarters, and insight and understanding may be lost if we insist on applying only conventional and self-referential norms; a fuller comprehension of the scope and validity of a claim is attained when a proposition is tested in different lights, when it is examined and reexamined, and debated and restated from a range of viewpoints. Thus, while foreswearing any notion that all claims or criticism of knowledge deserve equal standing, we must be especially vigilant in protecting against any propensity to quarter and confine discussion and debate.
In service of this proposition, I focus today upon the uses of dialogue within the modern research university. Of course, higher education does not and should not hold a monopoly on vibrant dialogue and the testing of ideas; in a democratic society, that exchange takes place in numerous venues, from pulpit to press. But there is powerful evidence that the quality of dialogue in much of our society increasingly has been impoverished—that, just when there is a need for more nuanced reflection and discussion, civil discourse seems ever less able to deliver it. American civil society has moved far from the Athenian ideal, and much of the explanation for this sad fact is found in the short attention span of Americans generally and our society’s desire for simple answers, regardless of a question’s complexity.
Consider just one example. The dialogue on the issues of the day in broadcast journalism and political commentary—strikingly captured in the rise of 24 hour cable news—increasingly promotes a culture of extremes which values entertainment over substance. And, too often, even mainstream news reports blend substance and entertainment and consequently obscure the complexity of important issues, ironically diminishing the attention we give to them. We learn and speak in shrinking sound bytes: for example, the amount of time the evening news accords during a presidential campaign to hear from a presidential nominee in an average story has declined from 42 seconds in 1968 to just over 7 seconds in 2000. More generally, we have developed what might be called a coliseum culture—or, to use a more modern metaphor, public discourse as professional wrestling. In this contemporary arena, the medium offers messages which consist almost entirely of bipolar and absolutist views, while resisting the kind of questions and qualifications that are fundamental to comprehending almost any subject.
Political discourse itself has been warped by this coliseum culture—with a resulting rise of simplistic attack ads, repetitious messages and talking points. The Lincoln-Douglas debates demonstrated a complexity of argumentation and a sensitivity to nuance that has all but disappeared today. True, today millions of Americans watch what are called “presidential debates”; but these encounters are primarily opportunities to reinforce message points or compete for the most memorable lines—regardless of what an opponent has said, or even what question has been asked. Candidates are coached to convey their case, often a blunt and basic one, tethering it as loosely as necessary to the subject matter supposedly being discussed. Indeed this is encouraged or even required by the format itself: while Lincoln and Douglas in each of their seven debates had an hour for opening statements, ninety minutes for a reply, and an additional thirty minutes for rebuttal, so far this year’s candidates have generally been given two minutes to respond.
And one does not have to go back 140 years, but only forty, to the far more nuanced and articulated views of both candidates in the Kennedy-Nixon debates, where the opening statements consumed eight minutes and were followed by answers to reporters’ questions and then rebuttals. This colloquy appears now almost like a treatise compared to the Cliff Note quality of contemporary presidential debates, which are debates only in the most attenuated sense of the term. Substance is sacrificed for style—and regardless of which candidate “wins,” what is lost is nuanced thought.
Of course, the contest of ideas inside the university is not limited to issues of obvious public importance. Nonetheless, even if judged solely by its contribution to the progress of the commonweal, the traditional work of the university is a powerful generator of new responses to societal concerns—for it is often a surprisingly small step from basic research to the world of policy and law, on topics ranging from the mystery of DNA to the nature of liberty and justice. And, at a time when the civil discourse is collapsing, it is necessary to assert for universities an additional and potentially pivotal role within civil society both as a powerful reproach to the culture of caricatured thought and as a model of nuanced conversation. In effect, the university can extend the peer review process so that a textured interchange of ideas can become an “output” that reaches beyond faculty and students. In this way, protecting the sacred space opens the university and its generation of ideas to an ever wider audience. Instead of the occasional invitation to an academic to have seven minutes on “Crossfire,” the university can invite the public into a very different process for testing and shaping ideas.
As universities seize and fulfill this increasingly important mission, we must be careful to uphold the objectivity and detachment which are singular hallmarks of academic life. There is a real danger in our celebrity society that scholars may be seduced into opining on areas unrelated to their expertise, into relaxing their standards, and into viewing themselves as popular pundits. Even for academics the spirit is as weak as the flesh. In this regard, there is a particular danger that, as scholars engage in the salutary process of crossing disciplinary boundaries, they will be tempted to avoid the cost of acquiring expertise in the other discipline with which they now are engaging and, consequently, produce only surface insight.
Thus, even as we accept new roles for the university, it is vital that we reaffirm its abiding role in supporting and encouraging pure research in the cause of advancing knowledge; in and of itself, the general advancement of knowledge is essential to the evolution of society. I mean only to emphasize that today every illustration of a fuller and more robust dialogue within the university is a needed testament against the current narrowing trends within the wider civil discourse.
All this imposes an even greater responsibility on universities—always the best, and perhaps now the last best, venue for the full expression and development of ideas—zealously to live their ideal as intellectual sanctuaries and sacred spaces where claims are tested not only by objective measures but also by informed and open debate. This, if nothing else, justifies the attention I give here to the way dialogue must live and work within our universities.
It is ironic that at a time when sustaining the university as sanctuary is so important to society at large, society itself has unleashed forces which threaten the vitality if not the existence of that sacred space. Simply put, the polarization and oversimplification of civic discourse have been accompanied by a simultaneous attempt to capture the space inside the university for the external battle. This trend does not arise from one political side or another, but from a tendency to enlist the university not for its wisdom but for its symbolic value as a vehicle to ratify a received vision. Genuine and nuanced dialogue is derided as pedantic if it does not yield the “right result,” expressed in easily understood answers or quotable conclusions—and it is parodied or attacked when it yields controversial conclusions, and sometimes even when it simply asks controversial questions.
Forces outside our gates threaten the sanctity of the dialogue on campus. Begin with an obvious example. Every university president, and most deans, at some point have to face sometimes enormous external pressure because a controversial speaker is coming to campus. Inviting speakers from the right or from the left, from the fringes or even from the majority, often attracts varying degrees of protest and accompanying demands that the speaker be banned.
I witnessed this most palpably with the visit of the Cuban Minister for Justice, Carlos Amat, to the NYU Law School while I was Dean. A talk radio station in Miami mobilized a massive fax campaign against the event; I received hundreds of faxes every day—nearly all condemning the fact that a speaker was coming to campus who was viewed as responsible for repression in Cuba. Of course, most of the faxes ignored the fact that we had insisted that the Minister abide by the strict rules we apply to all who come to campus—most importantly that he stand for questioning for twice as long as the speech he gave. And in addition, we had reserved a number of seats at the dinner for Cuban-American members of the Law School community.
The evening was one of the most memorable events of my time as Dean: The 24 principally student guests at the dinner sat silently during the meal, refusing even to touch a fork on the theory that they would not break bread with such a man. After dinner, they questioned him intensely—and their questions and his answers were set against the background music and chants of protesters outside in the street. The day after the event, I received a fax—not of protest, but of apology—from a Congressman in Miami who had helped incite the campaign against the visit. The students had reported to him that the event had given them an important forum where genuine voice had been given to their views.
But you don’t need Cuban repression or a communist from abroad to spark protest about a topic or a speaker. Last summer’s issue of Fordham’s Alumni Magazine contained several letters condemning Fordham’s administration for appointing Father Daniel Berrigan as the University’s Poet in Residence. Father Jeffrey von Arx, then Fordham’s Dean and now Fairfield’s President, responded appropriately by saying that it was his experience that “Fordham students have the critical abilities to judge whether they agree with his or any other professor’s opinion.”
In my experience, there are cases where, no matter how august the proposed speaker, some may object with intensity to hearing them—or, more important, to allowing others to hear them. In the months before I formally assumed the Presidency of NYU in 2002, a year after Bill Clinton left the White House, I was subjected to enormous pressure to cancel a day-long symposium, led by President Clinton and featuring a host of experts, discussing the interaction of the religions of Abraham in our globalized world. Some opposed the subject matter of the event because they believed it was inappropriate to provide a platform for critics of America from the Islamic world. And there were others who opposed the appearance of the President himself. Ironically, when asked, many who condemned the event on either ground readily conceded propositions that they should have seen as inconsistent with their position: for example that, although they resisted a public airing of Islamic views on the United States, they would applaud a conference on anti-Semitism among Muslims—and that, although they would have deprived students and faculty of the opportunity to hear the forty-second President of the United States, they happily would have welcomed to campus the thirty seventh, Richard Nixon, in the days after his impeachment and resignation.
I should note that, although I did not ask, I am equally certain that among those who welcomed President Clinton, many would have excoriated us for having President Nixon as a speaker. Personally, I would have invited both Presidents to NYU as a way to give students a chance to experience and not just study history. And whoever the speaker is—a President, a partisan or a pacifist—I believe universities should be free from outside pressure when judging who should be asked to speak on campus.
Frequently the external pressure is not reserved for protesting visiting speakers. Once unleashed, those who would exclude or punish certain views are more than willing to apply their muscle in an attempt to silence members of the university’s faculty or other members of the community. A group like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) assaults, targets and intimidates faculty and students engaged in research, or even in the care of animals, while rejecting the opportunity, offered for example at NYU, to engage in a University-sponsored public forum on the value and ethics of animal experimentation. In a different cause, groups like Campus Watch keep comprehensive lists of professors they deem biased and organize parental and student campaigns, both against specific faculty members and entire institutions based upon an asserted failure to meet political litmus tests.
Too often, intimidation generated by any one of a number of vociferous minorities has succeeded in repressing free inquiry, even in cases where a professor’s statements are well within the mainstream of a university’s dialogue. And, of course, the farther the professor moves from the mainstream, the more intense the reaction: a report of a special committee of the American Association of University Professors recounts repeated attempts after the September 11 terrorist attack to censure or dismiss scholars who argued that American foreign policy was at least partially at fault. In one well-reported case, a Congressman actually said that the issue was not whether the professor in question had the right to make what he called “idiotic comments,” but whether after making them he had the right to remain in his position at a distinguished university.
Another Congressman, spurred by a group called the Traditional Values Coalition, sent to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) a list of some 250 research projects he denounced as unfit for taxpayer support. The projects, all of which had survived the rigorous peer review process at NIH, involved research on such issues as drug abuse, women’s health and dangerous behavior associated with the AIDS virus. An NYU scholar who was a principal investigator on one of the projects is doing research on primary and secondary HIV prevention, and on the interaction between substance abuse, risk-taking, and the maintenance of health. Placing him and others like him on a “watch list” in an obvious attempt to chill both the willingness of scholars to undertake work in certain areas and the willingness of NIH to fund them is one of the great threats to the role of the research university as intellectual incubator.
The Congressman in the first case, of course, insisted that he was speaking not as an agent of government, but as an individual—and, in that respect, his intervention appears to be indistinguishable from that of a notable alumnus or tabloid columnist. The Congressman in the second case would insist that he was simply acting in an oversight capacity. It is troubling, however, that increasingly government itself is exercising its enormous power to exert pressure on the nature and content of the dialogue on campus—and of the research that is the predicate to that dialogue.
Even as we speak, members of Congress are attempting to exercise clearly inappropriate control of faculty research by embedding in Title VI of the Higher Education Act provisions governing federally funded language and area studies centers. They propose establishing government advisory boards to ensure that the centers provide an appropriate array of political opinions. The invocation by the legislation’s sponsors of the need to encourage a diversity of viewpoint on campus is nothing more than a transparent mask for a concerted effort to chill freedom of inquiry and create a governmentally approved list of views that must be represented in the research agendas of faculty, obviously compromising the right and ability of scholars to shape their inquiry and take it wherever their research leads them.
Other threats to the university as sanctuary already have been enshrined in law. One of the most pernicious interferences with universities in recent years is the Solomon Amendment: an attempt through law to force universities to ignore their written policies against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, nationality, gender or sexual orientation—a policy that reflects the university’s commitment to diversity and different points of view. Put more concretely, because of present government policy, military recruiters refuse to sign the standard pledge required as a condition of interviewing on most campuses—a pledge foreswearing discrimination against gays. The Solomon Amendment (named not for the wise king, but for its sponsor, the late New York Representative Gerald Solomon) withdraws federal funding from a university in which even just one department denies interviewing privileges to the military. Faced with the draconian prospect of losing tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars for everything from needy students to medical research, universities have been forced to betray their own fundamental values.
Now, in addition, new homeland security laws like the artfully named USA PATRIOT Act breach the autonomy of academic libraries, forcing librarians to provide FBI agents with personal reader information, or even to hand over library computers. Moreover, the Act simultaneously prevents libraries from protecting their borrowers against government surveillance and bars them from informing students, teachers, or researchers if their choice of reading is being watched and recorded.
At the same time, again in the name of security, we see an increasing official intolerance toward foreign professors and students, with new immigration restrictions which bear no apparent relation to genuine security concerns but which certainly hamper the capacity of America’s universities to bring into the conversation on campus those who are most talented, regardless of their country of origin. Foreign nationals interested in coming to our universities face longer application periods, extensive background checks, and constant monitoring; and many perfectly innocent professors and students effectively have been denied entry through burdensome and lengthy application procedures—and, astonishingly, some simply have been seeking to return after brief visits home to universities where they already have spent months or even years. The result: the Institute of International Education now reports that the number of foreign nationals coming to teach and study in the United States has all but stagnated, reversing a fifty-year trend of increased enrollment and thereby depleting our capacity to understand other cultures and diminishing our chance to have them understand us.
Certainly, sensible standards are justified to address the threat of terrorism. But the inefficiency and obtrusiveness of the government’s present regulation of foreign nationals risks endangering the long tradition of American universities opening their gates to the world’s most gifted professors and students—a tradition that has served this nation well, that has advanced the national interest in spreading values of liberty, tolerance and justice across the globe, and that has been a rich component of the dialogue on our campuses. The loss of other voices from other nations threatens both the diversity that enriches the creation of knowledge, and the ongoing evolution of society’s conceptions of equality and justice.
Beyond the array of identifiable external threats to the sanctuary for dialogue on campus, there are yet other, harder to identify, pernicious forces at work—society’s general devaluation of the search for new knowledge, and a decline in our culture’s appreciation for long-term dividends in favor of short-term results, or worse still, short-term gratification. This concentration on immediate satisfaction pervades American society and is captured vividly in the rise of the quarterly report as the key economic indicator for the corporate world. Perhaps the single most significant impact of this trend on universities in recent years is found in the domain of medicine, where the emphasis on HMOs, short-term cost reduction, and managed care has made it very difficult to provide the kind of state-of-the-art care that is the hallmark of academic medical centers. It has undermined– indeed has come close to destroying—the capacity of research medical centers to engage in clinical and translational research.
Similarly, our great public research universities—perhaps the canaries in the coal mine of higher education finance—have suffered recent and repeated budget cuts at the hands of legislators who demagogue about productivity and the eccentricity of faculty research.
The danger of this short-term thinking is greatest for funding of research in the arts and social sciences—essential work that produces remarkable progress in knowledge, but relatively few obvious and immediate benefits. Devaluation of such research is financially harmful to the university, impairing the ability to push back the boundaries of insight. And, even more important, it undermines the bedrock on which our institutions are founded—the sanctity of intellectual inquiry and discovery for its own sake.
Ironically, our national constriction of the knowledge agenda comes at a time when our leaders proclaim that we have entered the knowledge century and that we are in the process of moving our nation toward a knowledge economy. Others, as they observe America, perceive that irony as they seek to emulate and even supplant the role of American research universities as generators of learning and progress. Most university presidents, I am sure, share with me the experience of being visited by delegations from cities around the world interested in funding the creation, on their soil, of branches of our universities as essential to their strategy of economic and social development. They “get it”—even as our society retreats to measuring concrete outcomes at our universities and even as we experience societal amnesia about the dynamic importance of advancing knowledge on all fronts.
The threats to the sanctuary are not just external. Indeed, in talk about American universities in the media and in popular culture, what concern there is about genuine dialogue on our campuses typically focuses on the fear of internal forces loosely and sometimes inaccurately associated with the phrases like “political correctness.” In my view, much of the political correctness debate reflects a lack of understanding or information of what actually happens in academe. Indeed, the stereotypical charges issued by public figures like William Bennett, Camille Paglia, Ramesh Ponnuru among others, themselves function as a silencing device of its own—and may be intended as such.
That having been said, there is a kernel of important truth captured in the popular political correctness debate—one that transcends political categories like left and right. Those who enjoy, in the civil sphere, certitude of viewpoint that is not open to change by reasoned argument are incapable of contributing or even participating in meaningful dialogue. They cannot contribute because they treat their conclusions as matters of dogma and, therefore, expound their positions in declaratory form; they live in an Alice in Wonderland world—first the conclusion, then the conversation. They can incite discussion; they even can create an intellectual adrenaline rush; but they cannot produce insight. So also they cannot participate meaningfully in the dialogue, because they will not engage it; for them, the exercise is a serial monologue in which they state and restate but never revisit or rethink their positions. Thus, the kernel of truth in the political correctness debate: ideological conversation is of little or no value.
There always is a danger that ideologically driven actors within the university will attempt to stifle conversation, or will attempt to create a climate in which it is difficult to advance certain positions; at times they may do this by responding to opposing viewpoints with inflammatory labels. So those who care about vibrant debate within the university must resist such doctrinaire approaches, whether from the left or the right.
But, while few at major research universities are dogmatic in these ways, there are in fact significant internal threats to the dialogue on campus that are not captured in the phrase “political correctness”: powerful structural forces and strong attitudinal temptations within the university can fray the fabric of its intellectual life.
In a working paper on the role of faculty in the common enterprise university which I first offered last June, I began to describe some of the internal structural forces at work which can undermine what Alfred North Whitehead called “civilized modes of appreciation.” The range of academic fields has expanded in the past half century—a positive phenomenon with a problematic byproduct, the balkanization of the academic enterprise. Many of the most important challenges and issues that universities address today require complex and synthetic answers beyond the scope of any one domain or discipline. From mapping the human genome to comprehending the sources of terrorism, we need to mobilize not only traditional methods and resources, but also bold conversations beyond traditional boundaries and across the disciplines. Yet at precisely the moment when we urgently need this wider dialogue, we see in some, though thankfully not everyone and at our best universities not most, a diminished commitment to discourse across boundaries and a lack of interest in hearing challenges to one’s basic assumptions, especially from those who approach problems from a different point of view.
To the extent that we create structural impediments to dialogue, we exacerbate a distinct attitudinal problem, prevalent in the wider society but especially corrosive on campus. Stated simply, too many Americans—and in all honesty, too many experts and many academics—simply have not cultivated the talent of listening. One example is obvious: despite its extraordinary ethnic diversity, America is still largely an ethnocentric society; as a people we tend instinctively to devalue the wisdom, learning and possible contributions of “the other.” The danger in academe is the development of a parallel tendency not to listen with a generous ear to methodological, political or religious “others,” just to name a few.
The process of genuine dialogue demands and depends on careful appreciation (listening) to challenges to our views. And indeed, traditional research and scholarship at its best can be seen as a form of internalized dialogue among the scholar, the text, and the larger community engaged in similar research. I trust I will not be viewed as overly cynical if I aver that the capacity for generous listening, especially to criticism, remains incompletely realized in all of us. Only the best of us approach this ideal; and all of us live with the fact that our life experience as professors presses to the contrary. A good part of our formal responsibility entails addressing audiences that have assembled to hear our thoughts; much of our other activity involves the production of scholarship that we discharge to others eager to read it. Neither of these contexts is calculated to develop our capacity to listen. Those of us committed to nurturing dialogue in the university must resist these common pressures in our lives. In the sacred space at the core of the university, attention must be given and valuation must be conferred on the talent of listening and the process of true engagement—not just with the usual colleagues but with other voices and other views.
So there are threats both external and internal to what I have called the sacred space for dialogue within our universities—the life-giving genetic code of the academic communities where we learn and teach, and a life-enhancing force in the wider societies we study, influence and impact. I turn now to a most difficult question: the role of the university leader in drawing defensible boundaries around the sacred space and in creating structures and practices to protect and preserve it.
As a threshold issue, each university president must decide whether to use the bully pulpit provided by that position to express views on a broad range of public questions—in short, whether or not to draw on the university’s political capital to advance causes that he or she believes are just. My own reflection on this question actually began here on this campus, 40 years ago, when I studied the life and work of Charles Eliot, often regarded as our nation’s greatest university president. The President of Harvard for four decades and the subject of my doctoral dissertation, Eliot arguably invented the bully pulpit for university presidents. During his tenure, he considered himself free, indeed compelled, to speak plainly and forcefully on every issue of the day—immigration, antitrust, foreign policy, and of course education. He was often referred to as the first citizen of America, and there is no doubt that he felt the title was appropriate. He always had a view—and the nation always heard it.
Many observers have decried the absence of latter-day Charles Eliots and the apparent relative timidity of university presidents today. And to be sure, university leaders now tend to be more cautious in making public pronouncements—and perhaps not always for the best reasons. Our caution certainly does not arise from lack of encouragement: for example, in just two years as NYU’s President, I have been urged to take public stances on everything from third-world debt to whether the Knicks should have fired Don Chaney.
I am no apologist for a timidity or silence chosen for the wrong reasons; and, no jury would convict me of being a timid or reticent man. However, although I will not speak for others, I myself have chosen a path quite different from Eliot’s, and I have done so as a matter of deep and sometimes difficult principle—a principle that arises from my belief that the paramount and superceding duty of the president is to safeguard the fragile sanctuary for dialogue within the university. In service of this end, I believe it is essential for the university’s leader to refrain generally from expressing views publicly on any issue that is not centrally related to the core mission of the institution; to do otherwise would compromise the moral authority of the presidency in the forum and undermine the credibility of the leader’s commitment to the role as guardian of that dialogic space.
I am not alone in this view. As keen an observer of our universities as Frank Rhodes has written:
The integrity of the institution must also be safeguarded. I submit that the institution should not be an advocate for particular causes over and beyond those clearly expressed in its catalog. It will best benefit society by serving as a place for independent exploration of the human condition. As such it shelters debate, it encourages criticism, and it seeks synthesis. The only issues on which it can legitimately take a corporate stand are those vital to its mission of scholarship and service. This view of institutional neutrality on all but the most fundamental issues is easily misunderstood, but it is basic to the freedom and responsibility that universities need to survive. This neutrality is a self-imposed duty, a considered position, rather than a cowardly abdication or a careless omission.
I came early to the view that to make an exception by speaking publicly to an issue simply because I held strong beliefs would create an effective if unintended hierarchy in which other issues, by not being accorded equal status, were revealed as less important—an example of what in my Fordham logic course was called a “negative pregnant.” To avoid this consequence, I have lived by a rule of forbearance from such public utterances.
When, as Dean of the Law School, I first implemented this principle, my resolve was tested by invitations to join the public debate on matters like the death penalty and abortion, two of the many questions on which privately I have deeply felt convictions. Over the years, sometimes against intense pressure, and notwithstanding my genuine love for a good debate, I have stayed the course.
Let me share one example. When Mayor Giuliani cut the budget for Legal Aid dramatically in 1997, I was asked by a longtime friend and generous benefactor of NYU’s Law School (among whose gifts, incidentally, was a chaired professorship to be named for me) to join other law school deans in New York in signing an open letter of protest. In pressing me, he noted that I was the only one of the twelve deans who had not signed. I continued to decline to do so, not because I disagreed that the cuts were ill-advised, but because I thought something even more vital was at stake—the value of being able to state, each time I was asked to take a position outside the purview of my institutional responsibilities, that I could not do so without impinging on my ability to defend the sacred space of the university.
I know there is a reasonable argument that in accepting the leadership of a university, an individual does not, as such, lose the entitlement to free speech—that our roles as university leaders and as citizens of a free society are distinct and should be treated as such. But while I believe this argument may work well in the abstract, it is problematic in practice. The two roles are linked in the public mind, whether or not that is the intention, whether or not that is appropriate, and even if the linkage is disclaimed.
It is at this point that the fragility of the sacred space and the paucity of its defenders prompt me to believe that those entrusted with the responsibility of protecting it cannot deviate from that role as their prime mission. If they pick and choose issues beyond higher education on which to speak, they in effect display a partiality which would prompt participants in the forum to question whether in other cases their claims of impartiality are believable and reliable. The principle of restraint which I propose is grounded in the notion that the leader of the university must be perceived—and perceived widely—first and foremost as the guardian of the university’s dialogic space and as the facilitator of the open and public scrutiny of ideas that lies at the heart of higher education.
To draw a useful analogy from the law, the Supreme Court of the United States must husband its moral capital in order to sustain a widespread belief in society that its decisions are the product of an impartial deliberative process. It is this that undergirds the willingness of the public to accept even highly controversial decisions of the Court, which may offend a majority or even a substantial minority. Were it not for the fact that generations of Justices were mindful of the need for this kind of restraint, it is less likely that the public would have tolerated landmark decisions by the Court on desegregation, school prayer and flag burning. Captured in the description of the Court as “the least dangerous branch,” the truth is that the Court’s ability to exercise real authority depends upon its perceived authority.
For the university president, there is a related but separate danger: taking a stand on issues only tangentially related to higher education risks intimidating others on campus who may hold incompatible or opposing views. Some may dismiss the risk as theoretical, but the danger is that intimidation can occur and in some cases almost certainly will. Even where the president disclaims that he or she is speaking officially, what is said can confer an informal imprimatur, seeming to put the university on one side or the other.
There is a synergy between these two dangers—the apparent loss of impartiality and the genuine risk of intimidation—which compounds the harm as they interact. In every situation in which the university president decides to speak on an issue outside the purview of higher education, not only is the prospect of intimidation real but the likelihood of a perception of intimidation is even greater. And, every instance of such real or apparent intimidation inevitably undermines the ability of the president to act as the impartial guardian of the forum. To me, it is clear that whatever value added the voice of the president provides on a chosen issue most often will pale by comparison to the value lost by eroding the capacity of the president to safeguard the dialogic process of the university through his perceived impartiality.
Let me emphasize that it does not follow from the general principle just articulated that university leaders must be silent on all issues. There are times where they have the right—indeed the duty—to speak. The clearest instances involve such issues as the role of universities in liberal democracies, access to education, the impact of government decisions on higher education, and the contours of financial aid and admissions policies. On such issues, the president should advance a view of what is best for the university, and should be willing to defend that view openly and promote it vigorously in the public arena. University presidents are, after all, the leaders of a certain kind of institution with a specific and important role within our culture, and they constantly should be articulating their thoughts on the role and viability of their institutions and subjecting their views to scrutiny and the standards of evidence that are themselves the ground of the university’s being. Indeed, it would be quite impossible for the president of the university to refrain from taking positions on issues of this kind, because the very operation of the university day-to-day depends on how they are resolved. Presidential commentary on areas like this is a given.
But in addition, I am arguing today that a university president also must speak to another set of issues flowing from the obligation to protect sacred space, facilitate open dialogue and guard the scrutiny of ideas and values. The first duty of the president here is to articulate a framework in which the sacred space can exist and thrive. This requires explaining what makes the sacred space valuable, what it means for participants to embrace its values and what demands ought to be placed on those who are privileged to be a part of it.
Beyond setting out the framework for open dialogue, the president must speak to its fragility on campus and be resolute in resisting attacks upon it—from defending the right of the controversial to be heard, to resisting attempts to impose the kind of political litmus tests on faculty that universities faced during the McCarthy era.
The sacred space represents a scarce resource as well as a fragile one; we cannot cheapen its significance by letting it become little more than a soap box. The president must articulate an explicit conception of a forum where only those who respect the principles that underwrite its commitment to dialogue, open debate, reflection and respect for others are appropriate participants. If we do not adhere to this standard, we become accomplices in subverting the sacred space. At a minimum, we must make the space available only to those who view dialogue, discussion and the exchange of ideas as the precious coins of intellect that they are—and who, therefore, rely on argument and evidence, not coercion and deception. Those who have to express ideas by force or fraud have no claim on the space.
So to cite the extremes, it is hard to make a case that the university’s sacred space should be available to the likes of a Bin Laden or a Hitler because they reject the principles on which that space depends.
There will be other cases harder to resolve. The key is to handle them in accord with the principles that make the sacred space within the university distinctive and worth preserving. Any system of rules vests final decision-making authority in someone. Here it is the president, and the president’s decisions, though fallible, that must be seen to rest on an explicit conception of his or her role as the guardian of the forum. The comfort of the community with a president making such decisions ultimately rests on moral authority, once again underscoring the importance of not spending presidential capital by speaking on issues only tenuously connected to the primary mission of preserving the sacred space.
This is not to say that Hitler, Bin Laden or a racist may never appear on campus—there may be circumstances where they might be invited—not because that person has a claim to be there, but because a judgment has been made that the space can be used to expose him or her for what they really are. Indeed, before excluding such a speaker, the university president should pause and take one final look at whether requiring that the speaker comply with certain rules of engagement might lead to inclusion, given the extraordinary presumption in favor of access. For example, when the Cuban Minister for Justice visited the Law School, our insistence that he agree to stand for questioning and that the time for questioning be double his prepared remarks was a prerequisite to his appearance. And as I have said earlier, such rules should be permanent characteristics of the forum in any case.
Thus far we have limited the president’s use of the bully pulpit to issues affecting the core operations of the university and the guardianship of the space for dialogue within it. And, we have described the general importance to the president’s guardianship role of silence beyond those bounds. There are, however, circumstances—I would say rare circumstances—where the president could, indeed should, speak on issues that go beyond the boundaries I have set. One such example is the apartheid debate that occurred on our campuses. It is vital, however, that these circumstances be carefully circumscribed and that the circumscription take account of the fact that it is impossible for the president to speak without drawing down the capital of the university as a whole. Thus, in my view, the president ought not arrogate to personal discretion the decision to speak out, even on matters like apartheid in South Africa; rather, the president should speak even on such issues only after procedures designed to manifest a consensus within the university community have authorized the move beyond the normal principle of restraint.
On the same basis, I believe it is an error (at least generally) to make the University’s endowment an instrument for political expression, for doing so raises the same problems as presidential pronouncements. Thus, it is no surprise that I believe the procedures governing political activity by the president and the political use of the endowment should be the same.
Conversations at NYU with those who would have me speak out or use our endowment to make political or social statements have reinforced my view. At different points, for example, various advocates have argued that I should publicly oppose the death penalty or America’s invasion of Iraq; similarly, they have urged divestment from interests as diverse as defense contractors, industries affecting the environment, or companies with interests in particular countries. Some have argued we should not use Citibank for student loans; others say we should avoid investing in government bonds. Rarely will there be a consensus on such issues in a university community, but, in any event, unchanneled and unfocused conversations about them provide little light and much churn. A better approach is creating a venue to facilitate a productive dialogue in which common ground might be revealed and a consensus might emerge.
Such a process should involve a formal plebiscite, and a simple majority in favor of a particular stance would not be enough: for the university (either through its president or its investment policy) to enter the fray on controversial issues, members of the community must support that decision overwhelmingly. And in some cases, even when a substantial majority favors one side, the president may judge that the weight and gravity of the arguments on the other side mandate continued forbearance. Thus, a “super majority” pressing the university to publicly declare a position is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition.
At NYU, the University Senate is available to hear arguments and to explore whether, in a particular instance, a consensus exists around the social or political use of our endowment. Through their respective governance councils, members of the community can express their views about how the endowment is invested. If a consensus develops that the Senate endorses, it can transmit that view to the University’s administration to the Board of Trustees. This mechanism, available for the rare cases in which endowment policies should be responsive to political or social concerns, also can be used to identify those rare instances in which the president might speak out on such concerns. And, it is worth noting, that a president who observed the limitations described here would bring to his or her comments greater force and greater legitimacy by virtue of the formal authorization of the community than if the decisions were left to the president’s unbridled discretion.
I have argued the proposition that university presidents generally should not use their positions to promote their political or social views publicly, that to do so would devalue their voices when they are most needed—when there is a clear and present danger to the sacred space, a question that affects its best possibilities, or that rare instance where the community urges that the president’s voice be heard on a controversial issue. But there is another side to this coin. The president inherently plays a role in deciding to whom the sacred space within the sanctuary is made available. And the university’s leader also may encounter circumstances in which it would be appropriate to insist that a voice, unrepresented or underrepresented in the discourse, be heard in order to ensure that the dialogue is balanced.
The simplest model, the easiest to apply, would enact an absolute version of Athenian democracy—a completely free market of ideas. Under this standard, the dialogue within the university would be open to all. No person and no position would be barred, however inconsistent with conventional thought, however repugnant to some, however hurtful the message.
Though this is a simple model to follow, and though an argument can be made that it is important to permit the iconoclasm of the unconventional and sometimes even the unthinkable, I already have made clear that I believe an absolute commitment to do so—to invite, for example, the likes of Bin Laden or Hitler—actually would undermine the sacrality of the dialogic space we seek to preserve. Therefore, we must consider how the lines are to be drawn—how to determine who should have access to the sacred space. In doing so, it is crucial to distinguish between those internal actors who belong to the university community and external individuals whose participation in the dialogue is more transient and, hence, discretionary.
Academic freedom protects free inquiry and expression by internal actors, although this cherished right must never be taken for granted and must be guarded zealously. All within the university must be free from censorship and censure—for the very notion of the university as sacred space assumes that it is a place where ideas are born and transmitted, where the controversial can be thought freely and expressed openly, and where the unimagined can become the object of dreams and aspirations. The assurance that each member of the university community can explore unpopular ideas without the threat of reprisal is of central importance, and the fidelity of the university to its mission demands adherence to this principle. This protection is essential for students, teaching assistants, adjuncts and teaching professors as well as tenured professors. Indeed, it is worth noting that academic freedom is not the same as tenure because it must apply to all and it is in that sense more fundamental.
This fundamental element of university life comes as close to possible to providing a guarantee that one may advance even the most unpopular arguments. But our discussion of the relationship between academic freedom and the sacred dialogic space within the university is incomplete if we focus only on the protection it provides to the individual and fail to connect the rights it confers with the responsibility it implies to protect the forum which it animates. For internal actors, accepting membership in the university community both requires foreswearing the use of coercion or deception to advance one’s views and requires a reciprocal fealty to the principles that guide and govern forum—in this context, acceptance of both the inviolability of open exchange and the importance of civil discourse, especially among those who hold conflicting or opposing views. Failure to live these principles need not result in expulsion from the community, but it certainly should yield shame and, in some cases, warrant censure. But censure is not censorship.
So we have a standard for admission to the university community to which every member of the faculty, the student body and staff should subscribe. A separate set of rules is appropriate for a different set of speakers, who may not meet the standards for formal inclusion in the community, but who do not represent the extreme cases I have already described and who should not be excluded automatically from being heard on campus. Indeed, as I have argued, there are powerful reasons for listening to those who may be outside the mainstream of the university or the society. Certainly in theory, hearing from them, however difficult their views, actually may strengthen our discourse by extending our understanding. Two hypothetical examples illustrate how this issue could arise and the different ways to resolve it.
Consider a hypothetical event on campus—a faculty member or club sponsors a panel to discuss the Arab/Israeli conflict and invites a speaker who contends that Arabs and Palestinians have turned to violence to empower themselves and that, in this context, the attacks of September 11 are at least explainable. In the face of the inevitable thousands of phone calls and emails to the president’s office the week before the event, should such a speaker be banned from campus? My answer is no.
I accept that there will be a short-term cost—perhaps considerable—as a result of the speaker’s appearance. There will be those who will be understandably hurt or even profoundly alienated; there will be those who will withdraw financial support, at least for a time; and there will be those who, at every available turn, will impose costs of all sorts as the price of inclusion. Nonetheless, I assert that the short-term costs will be counterbalanced by long-term gains resulting from consistent fidelity to the principle of inclusion across an array of issues—and that the long-term costs of exclusion, which in this case would involve a direct restriction of the freedom of members of the university community to shape their own conversation within bounds of civil discourse, would be staggering. By introducing this form of censorship into the university’s dialogic space, thereby narrowing even the scope of civil discourse, we would unleash a process of exclusion with which, history reveals, communities become all too comfortable applying all too widely and all too quickly. The temptation to retreat into comfortable conversational space is so alluring—and so antithetical to the nature of the university we must build—that it must be resisted at the outset.
But consider a second hypothetical with a pivotal difference in the fact pattern. In this case, we do not confront a situation where a campus organization has invited a controversial speaker; instead some entity which carries the official imprimatur of the university—such as the president’s office—is sponsoring or assembling the program. A member of the steering committee for the event has proposed the very same speaker as in the first hypothetical. The issue here is not a question of censorship, but of selection: no speaker has been invited, therefore none can be disinvited; the president simply must ask whether the inclusion of the proposed speaker, all things considered, advances the purpose of the event and the general development of space for dialogue on campus. Preserving the sacred space does not require that the university seize each and every opportunity to be provocative—and stirring people to a level of anger that will prevent them from hearing or understanding does not advance the long-term cause of dialogue within the university.
Of course, posing the question in this way does not determine in my second hypothetical whether the controversial speaker should be invited; rather, it makes clear that the decision could go either way, depending upon a balance of factors, each of them attentive to the overall goal of multiplying the number of viewpoints represented in the sacred space. The critical point is presidential and institutional commitment to the constant expansion of that space and the exercise of judgment in that direction.
This raises the question: what standards might guide the necessary judgment? Some of the factors are extremely difficult to quantify—for example, the likely amount of damage inflicted upon the overall effort to protect the marketplace of ideas, or, on the other hand, the likely contribution of the speaker at issue to the specific conversation. But I would suggest a measure of guidance, drawn by analogy from a different part of my life — the Senate’s advice and consent role on judicial appointments.
It is widely accepted that it is appropriate for the Senate to reject a judicial nominee whose fundamental views lie decisively outside the channel of the reasonable constitutional discourse of the day. Of course, the boundaries of that constitutional channel are not fixed; thus, for example, there are robust debates about the scope and content of the rights conferred by the First Amendment, with reputable scholars arguing vigorously for an expansive or narrow view of those rights. Still it is well settled at this point in our history that the limitations provided in an amendment that begins with the words “Congress shall make no law” apply with equal force to federal, state and local governments; any judicial nominee whose fundamental position was that the First Amendment applied only at the federal level would be the legal equivalent of an earth scientist who insisted the world was flat or a historian who denied the Holocaust.
By analogy, this process gives guidance to a president making the decision to invite or refrain from inviting the proposed controversial speaker to participate in my hypothetical presidential forum; in the case of speakers who are outside the channel of reasonable discourse (concededly a presidential judgment, but one made in good faith), the likelihood of their presence inflicting harm on the sacred space is high and the likelihood of their making a valuable contribution to the conversation is low. And these predicted outcomes will vary, depending upon how far outside the channel the speaker is.
Thus the decision in the two hypotheticals can be very different, even with respect to the same speaker. If invited by a campus club, even the flat earth advocate or the Holocaust denier would be permitted to come. The distinction is that in the first case it is important to avoid censorship within the sacred space—and in the second case, it is important to avoid the significant harm to that space that might flow from conferring the university’s imprimatur by virtue of a presidential invitation. And attention constantly must be paid, lest the practical boundaries of the university conversation undermine the ground of its being; said differently, any and all exclusions must be carefully scrutinized, rigorously questioned and explicitly justified.
There are thoughtful observers—including some of the best thinkers about the Constitution’s First Amendment—who argue that the only appropriate limits on access to truly open forums are restrictions of time and place, and never of substance. This position, captured vividly in the defense of the right of Nazis to march in Skokie in the seventies, was initially quite attractive to me, and I abandoned it only after careful consideration, and with full knowledge of the pressures my new position places on a university president’s good judgment and carefully husbanded moral authority. I now believe that there are rare cases—and I emphasize their rarity—where applying a policy of absolute access is neither defensible nor prudent. The importance I place on generally refraining from using substantive grounds to circumscribe the dialogue is rooted in the need to preserve the university president’s moral authority for the few critical times when it should be exercised. In this regard, I believe that my analogy to the judicial confirmation process is apt: it is noteworthy, for example, that notwithstanding the present Administration’s commitment to appoint judges with a particular ideological orientation, the opposition party has engaged in all-out opposition to only four out of nearly two hundred nominees. With my analogy, I mean to invoke a rarity of this or an even greater degree.
This leads me to a related point: the president and the institution will be better able to facilitate the expansion of the space for dialogue if a context is created where observers of the vigorous conversation we hope to create see the university’s efforts not in single headline events or selective applications to speakers on individual topics, but as part of a more general and principled process.
Indeed, my observation is that one of the reasons the space for dialogue on campus is shrinking is not only that university leaders have been insufficiently outspoken in defense of that space, but also that they have allowed critics to parody the university’s commitment to dialogue by focusing on individual high-visibility events and specific controversial figures. Thus at NYU, we have begun work to provide a structure for the expansion of our university’s dialogic space through a new program which we will call the NYU Dialogues.
The Dialogues will present on challenging issues an array of programs over extended periods of time—programs designed, when taken together, to provide a nuanced and rigorous arena for genuine conversation. By contextualizing what might be highly controversial individual events (for example, the appearance of an unpopular speaker or consideration of a provocative topic), the hope is that the Dialogues will make the overall purpose of inquiry clear, will lessen defensiveness and increase the ability to listen and learn. The Dialogues also will experiment with various modes of discourse with the aim of developing new techniques for the advancement of richer interchange.
In launching this initiative, the University will begin to institutionalize new structures for conversation that not only will produce new insights for society generally, but also will deepen the intellectual life of the University. In addition to efforts like conferences and exchange programs, we will deploy tools to nurture more thoughtful and productive discussion. One such tool will be “Dialogue House”—a residence hall bringing together students and faculty from many disciplines joined by a common commitment to developing a culture of vigorous but mutually respectful exchange about great issues. Over a period of months, residents of the house, faculty and students alike, will engage in a series of readings and formal and informal discourses, designed to produce a progressively more informed understanding and a firmer grounding for whatever views they choose to hold. This intensive approach, applied to a topic like the interaction of the three religions of Abraham in globalized civil society, conceivably could yield remarkable results.
As great universities move to create enterprises like the NYU program just described, it is critical that they embed in them the insistence on standards that is the hallmark of scholarly conversation; that they attend to the long term and not just the short term; and that they display the qualities of reflection, dispassion, thoroughness and resistance to sensationalism that are characteristic of the best thinking within the university. Since we live in a society where cult status and celebrity frequently are bestowed as a reward for the provocative rather than the profound, there will be an inevitable pull in the direction of the instant headline which the universities must resist vigilantly. Just as in its careful attention to its role as sanctuary, so also in new initiatives like NYU’s Dialogues, universities self-consciously must position themselves as antidotes to the kind of civil—or should I say uncivil—sound byte “discourse” that increasingly pervades our society; and in doing so, they simultaneously can enrich the university and inform the world in which it lives.
As we explore such new paths, we must never lose sight of the central work of research universities, because the research they produce for its own sake also holds out special opportunities for enriching public discourse. So the research university must match its new endeavors to its enduring mission. It does not have a special obligation to provide a platform for any and every controversial and important issue, but there are issues where its scholarly expertise can be brought to bear in a direct and useful way. This attention to core mission can protect the research university from the tendency to make universities into servants of this or that political cause—or explicit agents for remedying this or that social ill. Whatever else they do, universities best play their important social and political roles indirectly by carrying out their teaching and research according to high standards. The most reliable counter to the array of pressures to convert universities into social or political advocates is the preeminence of the core mission of research and teaching, and the insistence that the extension of our work into other areas must be grounded as firmly as possible in this core mission.
Therefore, three conclusions emerge from my consideration of our two hypotheticals. First, where a faculty member or a club invites a speaker, no matter how controversial, it generally would be inappropriate for the university to ban that speaker. Second, where the university’s imprimatur might be implied, judiciously refraining from being provocative at times will be appropriate, and may not incur the cost of preventing others from being provocative. Third, this does not mean that the university—the provost or the president—may abandon an affirmative obligation actively to expand the appetite of people for the unheard voice and the unconsidered insight; in my view, the right approach to meeting this obligation is not through a reflexive (even if vigorous) defense of the importance of discourse in one-off situations, but rather through devices, such as the NYU Dialogues, which can contextualize the provocative and display obvious balance in the overall tapestry of the conversation.
Before closing, we must address one final issue. Given that the sacred space for dialogue and its effective scope are central to the nature of the university, and given that the conversation in that space and the ideas generated within it are the oxygen of intellectual life on campus, it is conceivable that the president might perceive an affirmative duty to intervene in order to assure a balance and diversity of the conversation. Such an obligation could manifest itself in many different ways—from positively seeking out speakers whose voices and views are generally absent, to requesting that faculty members, when they are in the classroom, temper the offensive expression of personal views on controversial issues unrelated to the courses they are teaching.
Of course, permitting or mandating the president or university leadership to “balance” the content of the conversation leaves the system open to individual bias. As with speaking in areas unrelated to higher education, taking corrective action to ensure certain voices are heard on campus may be construed—rightly or wrongly—as an endorsement of a particular position.
There are also practical limits to the role of facilitator; it is plainly impossible to make sure all sides of all issues will be heard at all times in all venues. Taking corrective action—for example, by inviting a speaker whose voice is underrepresented—may address one deficiency in the dialogue, but leave others unchecked. Incompleteness is inevitable. And surely the “balance” proclaimed by the worst of today’s media, where point is answered crudely by a counterpoint, must be resisted. What we prize in the university is a balance that represents the spectrum of ideas with a range of nuances, not just the extremes of the debate.
Yet we cannot ignore other dangers in the free marketplace of ideas. Academic freedom provides a structure for developing, challenging, refining and replacing ideas. But ironically it also can facilitate their repression. Departments can become locked in particular schools of thought, excluding those who disagree; entire institutions can adopt particular outlooks, thus undermining the very openness they purport to enshrine. All this can happen in an entirely democratic way. And this danger reaches even further, for the history of human thought is rife with examples of institutions that have used their freedom of action to lock in exclusionary ideologies and self-referential norms.
Universities today must be alert to that danger. For example, the appeal of ethnocentrism is so powerful that we must develop techniques to avoid its potential for exclusion and repression. Exclusionary practices on campus must be subjected to an almost irrebuttable presumption against them.
All this acknowledges that the channels in which the university dialogue flows are ever-changing—redirected under the pressure of the new, the revised and reformulated conceptions that are the endless product of the quest for truth. The role of the university and its leadership is not to dictate the course of the channel, but to foster its ebb and flow—the testing of ideas and assumptions that will enrich and expand the sacred space of the future.
Here again, concrete actions to support genuine dialogue are more important than general exhortations toward inclusion. But it is balance over time and in the context of the entire dialogue that is essential, not a reflexive and trite balance at each and every moment of conversation; indeed, demanding that kind of microbalance leads to shallow and bipolar discussion, thus mimicking the problem in the wider society. If every moment demanded a calibrated balance and inclusion, thought would not progress beyond the first level. So, the successful defense of the space for dialogue, in my view, ultimately depends on the ability to offer a picture, built on fact, which displays a campus literally and consistently engaging in deepening dialogue and living in the sacred space—the idea and ideal of the university.
In conclusion, we face today the challenge to defend and extend a principle as old as the university itself. The notion of sacred space underpins our institutions, providing a rationale for our role in the society we teach in and study. But while the space for free, unfettered exchange of ideas and the interplay of intellectual thought are unique to our institutions, the threats are extensive and urgent. We face attacks that must be met vigorously by adhering to a set of principles I have started to outline here today.
We must do more than just defend the status quo; the sanctuary entrusted to us is so precious, so fragile and so easily undermined that we must actively promote it in word and deed—empowering its participants, expanding its borders and enriching its substance. This is a daunting task, but also an essential duty. Failing to protect the university’s sacred space would carry great risks that could threaten the very existence of our institutions and the character of our society. And active promotion of that space carries with it the prize of greater and faster intellectual discovery—in the university and in the service of the world. So let us look forward by going back to basic principles. Let us accept the high privilege of not only living in, but giving renewed life to, the sacred space.