A WONDERFUL video on the value of free speech at universities

The University of Chicago doesn’t hide its defense of free speech and open discourse in the footnotes. It puts free speech front and center, in a video directed at all students thinking of applying to the University. It states our university values forthrightly, explains why they matter, and shows that we have held them since the university was founded, sometimes against rich and powerful opposition.

What’s amazing–and disheartening–is that these same values are not adopted by every college and university. What’s their principled objection to diversity of thought and free speech?

A few may have such principled objections, based on their notions of “social justice.” They know what is socially just; they know what is not; and they know the whole topic is just too important to debate. So, they reason, agree with us or at least have the courtesy to keep quiet.

DePaul is like that. It took away the students’ chalk last year after someone had the temerity to write “Trump 2016” on a sidewalk. This Catholic school banned a poster, “Unborn Lives Matter,” for fear it would upset black students. There’s more robust debate on the back of a cereal box.

But most university administrators have no principled objections to free speech. They just go with the flow, unwilling to face the opposition from students and faculty that would greet them if they urged a hearing for unpopular viewpoints.

The poster boy for this invertebrate position is Peter Salovey, president of Yale. It’s bad enough he fails to defend free speech. He goes further, patting himself on the back for supporting the First Amendment. “Lux et Veritas” may be the university motto, but only if the lux is environmentally-friendly and the veritas is approved by local truth squad. Otherwise, not so much.

Salovey’s stance is similar to most college administrators. They simply do what successful career bureaucrats always do: protect their positions and that of their institutions from any controversy. That may keep the campus quiet, but is that really the highest goal of education?

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I’m reluctant to post too much about my own university, despite my great admiration for its intellectual traditions and commitment to free speech.

It seems too much like preening.

(CAVEAT: Even at Chicago, there are some departments and centers that fall well short of the aspiration of diverse viewpoints. They are the same ones that rot and stink in the sun on all campuses.

There are also student groups that are happy to stomp out speech with which they disagree. The misnamed “Students for Justice in Palestine” leads this vile pack, as they do on many campuses. They show no signs of accepting John Locke’s 1689 “Letter Concerning on Toleration,” or the Enlightenment ideals that build upon it and serve as this country’s foundation.

Even with these gaps and missteps, Chicago’s values in principle and in practice are far better than at places like Swarthmore, Yale, or Berkeley, where free speech and discordant views go to die. They are buried in unmarked graves, unmourned by students who fritter away hard-won constitutional freedoms so they can signal their higher virtue.)

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This University of Chicago video is exactly what all schools should be saying to their prospective students. The punchline comes in the first 3 minutes, but the whole 10 minutes are worth watching.

Kudos to the university’s faculty and administrators who put free speech and diversity of ideas front and center. Kudos to the Dean of the College and the admissions department for underscoring these principled commitments.

Kudos, too, for adopting the informal motto: 

Audiatur et Altera Pars: Listen Even to the Other Side.

 

Eugene Lang: For his spur-of-the-moment generosity that changed countless lives for the better

Eugene Lang, who just died at 98, was a very successful investor who rose from poverty.  But that is not what makes his story so remarkable.

It was something he began, on an impulse, in June 1981, when he spoke to a class of sixth graders at a Harlem Public School.

The 61 students were black and Hispanic, and poor–as Mr. Lang himself had been at their age.

He began by telling them how inspiring Martin Luther King had been, how important hard work is, and other familiar observations about how to make your own life and others’ better.

But he quickly realized that these kids were on another planet and would simply ignore an old, rich white man, even though his background was as impoverished as theirs.

He had grown up in a $12-a-month cold-water flat in New York, graduated from high school at 14, and went to work in a restaurant. A regular customer there talked with him, realized how brilliant his waiter really was, and arranged a college interview. Lang was accepted to one of America’s best colleges, Swarthmore, and given financial aid to make it possible for him to attend.

As he spoke to the kids in Harlem, he must have seen a chance to pay back that regular customer a half-century later.

So, on an impulse, he told the class something remarkable.

He said he would give each of them a college scholarship if they were admitted to a four-year college.

Stunned silence.

Then, after the principal told him that only one or two would make it to college, he began to do more.

He “adopted” the class and the school and began contributing in ways that would make them ready and eager to take advantage of his offer.

With Lang’s help and the students’ commitment, the success rate was much higher, around 50%. As the New York Times says in his obituary:

At least half of the original 61 sixth graders — they called themselves Dreamers — enrolled in public and private colleges, although The Daily News later reported that some students had misunderstood the offer as a promise to pay tuition even at expensive colleges and were bitter. Of those who passed up college, Mr. Lang often found them jobs.

“I know I’m going to make it,” Aristides Alvarado, then a 20-year-old junior at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, told an interviewer in 1989. “And someday I’ll be big — real big — and pay the tuition for my own class of Dreamers.”

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers at the time, observed: “Lang put up a lot more than money. He put himself on the line, too.” –New York Times

Lang founded the “I Have a Dream Foundation” and established year-round enrichment programs. He persuaded many rich friends to open similar programs or contribute to his or others.

Over his lifetime, he gave $150 million to charities, including $50 million to his alma mater, Swarthmore, and another $20 million to the New School for Social Research in New York.

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Eugene Lang: a true mensch.

May his memory be a blessing.