This Is Who We Say We Are

Since retiring two years ago after sixteen years as president of Drake University, I have had many conversations with college and university presidents regarding the vast array of challenges that they and their institutions are facing. But in recent months, one set of issues has risen to the top of nearly everyone’s list: campus climate, inclusivity, free speech, and civil discourse. As reflected in the higher education media (and, increasingly, the popular press), hardly a week goes by in which some institution’s commitment to these core values is not challenged—often in very troubling and sometimes violent ways. Clearly, there are currents on our campuses—exacerbated by the devastatingly toxic nature of public discourse—that we are struggling to navigate. While there are no easy solutions to these issues, my experience at Drake University suggests at least one approach that may produce a more productive outcome when the inevitable conflicts of ideas and perspectives arise.

A Statement of Principles

In 1990, the then-president of Drake appointed a committee to review the university’s student conduct standards and disciplinary procedures. This committee recommended that hateful, threatening speech be addressed in the student judicial code—which it subsequently was. But several committee members felt that the recommendations went too far and were concerned about the implications for free speech and academic freedom. They also worried about the focus on prohibitions—what students could not do—and felt it important for the university to have a formal statement of what students, faculty, and staff should do regarding free speech, academic freedom, and civil discourse.

These concerns resulted in the drafting of the “Drake University Statement of Principles,” which the Faculty Senate approved and the Board of Trustees endorsed in 1991. In my tenure at Drake, I found this document—which clearly articulated the Drake community’s commitment to academic freedom and civil discourse, while identifying the kinds of speech that we would not tolerate—tremendously valuable in the incidences, thankfully few, that challenged our ability to live up to those values.

One of those challenges arose in April 2010, when the Drake University Law School’s annual Constitutional Law Symposium focused on the constitutional aspects of same-sex marriage. True to the symposium’s mission, this was not an advocacy event, but one that brought together experts with a broad spectrum of views. A few weeks before the event, the Des Moines Police Department learned that members of the Westboro Baptist Church—a hateful group that had gained national attention picketing at the military funerals of members of the armed forces killed in the line of duty, pronouncing their deaths the consequence of America’s tolerance of gays—were planning to come to Drake to protest the symposium.

An Opportunity to Show Commitment

Soon after the planned Westboro protest became public, members of the campus community asked me why we were allowing the protest at Drake (admittedly, on a very small patch of land across the street from the main campus)—a question that deserved a reasoned answer. At the same time, not surprisingly, I learned that a substantial number of students, faculty, and staff were planning a counterprotest. While I personally welcomed the counterprotest, I had concerns that it might play into Westboro’s hands.

To address both protests, I sent a memo (written in careful consultation with legal counsel and several of my administrator and faculty colleagues) to the entire campus community during the week before the event. The memo emphasized our collective responsibility to the values articulated in the Statement of Principles. I began by acknowledging that “our commitment to the role of the university as a haven for free and open discourse” would “be sorely tested” by the demonstration, and went on to state that “our response as a university community . . .  must be consistent with our core values.”

I then cited several passages from the Statement of Principles, including the following: 

Drake University upholds freedom of thought and freedom of expression as central to its educational mission. Drake therefore carefully refrains from restricting the exchange of ideas or regulating the content of speech. We realize that freedom of thought and freedom of expression produce conflict and challenge. We encourage civil debate and discussion of divergent perspectives and opinions in a manner that affirms our community.

I emphasized the vital role of the university as precisely the place where the community should come together to debate critical issues—a place where people are encouraged and supported in expressing their views without fear of reprisal. But, I noted, that does not mean without consequence; people must take responsibility for their words and actions, and subject them to the scrutiny of others. Again, from the Statement of Principles: 

Drake University declares its abhorrence of statements that demean, denigrate, humiliate, or express hatred toward members of the university community. . . . Any individual who uses bigoted or vicious speech and thereby betrays the ideal of mutual respect and goodwill toward all members of the university community may expect strong and public censure by the administration, faculty, and students. . . . To rebuke a speaker for the error of his or her ideas or for the odious nature of their expression is part of the robust and vigorous public debate that is the central purpose of the university.

The memo concluded with the following statement (originally in italics): “This is an opportunity to put our words into action—to show that we can act with dignity, restraint and wisdom in the face of challenges to our own standards of discourse and behavior, and to our core commitments as a community to inclusion and tolerance.

A Valuable Constitutional Document

On the following Saturday, a bright and sunny day, 450 to 500 people gathered in front of the university’s administration building, facing a small band of Westboro people (including small children) across the street. The Drake contingent held signs saying “Iowa is Love” and kept up a wonderful chorus of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” until the Westboro contingent departed after about thirty minutes. I immediately went to my office and violated one of the most important prohibitions of a university president: never send an email when you’re reacting emotionally to an issue. The email was short and simple, noting the counterprotest and saying that while I was proud every day to serve as Drake’s president, I had never been more proud of the Drake community than I was that morning.

There is no question that having the Statement of Principles as the reference point for my message to the campus was a critical factor in the outcome—as was confirmed in numerous conversations with students, faculty, and staff. In recent months, several institutions have issued articulate, thoughtful, and compelling statements in reaction to well-publicized campus incidents; my experience at Drake suggests that having a “constitutional document” in place before an incident, and using it wisely, can be extremely valuable.

Nonetheless, the question of whether or not to allow Westboro to protest on our property would be far more difficult to unravel in the current context than it was seven years ago. The issues roiling our campuses are far more complex, far more fraught with raw emotion, and far more politicized than what I experienced at Drake. I am not naïve enough to believe that if every campus had such a “constitutional document,” everything would be right with the world. But I am, perhaps, foolish enough to suggest that having such a document might help. And I’ll go one step further, and suggest that careful attention to a statement of principles (that should be formally endorsed by all bodies of the institution—by the board and by faculty, student, and staff councils), and the invitation for every member of the campus community to commit to it (and I am not proposing requiring any kind of formal commitment!), should be a component of new student, faculty, staff, and board orientation.

The message can be quite simple: “This is who we say we are. By voluntarily joining this community, you are committing to doing everything in your power to speak and act in a manner consistent with these principles.”

Reference

Drake University. 1991. “Drake University Statement of Principles." http://www.drake.edu/acad/policies/statementofprinciples/.


David Maxwell is President Emeritus of Drake University.

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