Editorial: The function of the University

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Though the University has recently found itself swarmed in a discourse over free speech and open discourse, this campus conversation has hardly opened novel issues. Brown and its peers have been grappling with the question of appropriate speech for decades, and President Christina Paxson is one in a history of leaders — both at Brown and at other universities — charged with navigating this debate. Paxson has been criticized for her handling of the fallout since New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly’s on-campus lecture was derailed by protesters. But though opposition has been vocal, we believe Paxson’s course of action benefits all members of this community — particularly the loudest of her critics.

Universities are predicated upon the free exchange of ideas, a principle past presidents have defended. Responding to a call in 2007 for Brown to boycott Israeli universities, then-President Ruth Simmons wrote castigating not only the suggestion but the entire concept of violating the objectivity of the University. “Institutions of higher learning go to extraordinary lengths to defend the free flow of information, the unfettered exchange of ideas, and the primacy of well-reasoned argument,” she wrote, adding that without that, “the academy cannot exist.” We laud Simmons for her defense of the value and purpose of a university: objectivity and a devoted pursuit of truth, we believe, are essential.

We have heard many say Kelly’s silencing was justified because his prominence affords him ample opportunities to speak. We have spoken with students who said they feel personally threatened by the stop-and-frisk policy Kelly advocates — a policy we have frequently denounced in the past few weeks. Though we sympathize with these arguments, we believe they are irrelevant to the discussion at hand. The University’s mission and academic freedom are principally at stake here, not Kelly’s rights, and Paxson has consistently advocated on behalf of the University. On the day of the protests, those who rightfully objected to Kelly’s policies effectively shut down the event, but as a poll published last week in The Herald demonstrated, their actions were far from the will of the student body. We cannot control what happens outside of Brown, but within the institution, we cherish the academic freedom of the institution and what it consequently provides us: the ability to hold and discuss different views.

We believe that any people — students or faculty members — who take positions they believe will engender criticism deserve respect. But though we praise the courage it takes to advocate those different viewpoints, we ultimately expect the University to act in a manner that ensures the open discourse and freedom we all require.

Brown has long been celebrated for its status as an “activist” university, but this spirit is a function of those who populate the school, not the institution itself. As Brown’s leader, Paxson is ultimately responsible for preserving the University’s objectivity and openness — qualities necessary for its members to advocate freely for the ideals in which they believe. Indeed, without this academic freedom, acts such as protesting against Kelly — and the discourse that has followed — would be impossible.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editor, Rachel Occhiogrosso, and its members, Daniel Jeon, Hannah Loewentheil and Thomas Nath. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.



  1. Don't dismiss sincere emotions says:

    “We have spoken with students who said they feel personally threatened by the stop-and-frisk policy Kelly advocates…Though we sympathize with these arguments, we believe they are irrelevant to the discussion at hand.”

    I’m not gonna cry out “the BDH is racist!”, but this article is mis-informed and incredibly insensitive. It’s not just that some Brown students feel threatened by Ray Kelly’s policies. More to the point is that some Brown students feel threatened BY THE UNIVERSITY ITSELF for bringing a man responsible for so much suffering and harm onto this campus in such a manner that his views were endorsed, not openly but certainly implicitly. Terms like “Proactive policing” and an event description that lauds his achievements without so much as a mention of the unjustified harms his policies have done. Awarding Kelly a lecture that honors those who have made a “distinguished contribution to public service.” Now I’m not saying Kelly hasn’t made any contributions to public service whatsoever, but I challenge the authors of this article to think deeply about how this implicit endorsement by our beloved university would feel for a person who has been affected by Kelly’s S+F policy or his Muslim surveillance programs. Think deeply, and don’t you dare try to dismiss the emotions of sincere fear and alienation that some Brown students feel towards the University as “irrelevant to the discussion at hand.”

    • Overreact much?

      • Don't dismiss says:

        please elaborate what above is an overreaction.

        • Go read Professor Miller’s letter, that’ll sum it up for you.

          • Don't dismiss says:

            Thanks for your lazy response. I’ve read it and he makes the same assumption that the editors did, that the protest was only motivated to protest Ray Kelly’s policies, when in fact a big part of the protest was in relation the context in which Kelly was brought to Brown.

          • You’re welcome. Now try growing a pair. That way your feelings won’t get hurt so much.

    • because insensitive things should not be published…since when do we live in a world where people have a right not to get their feelings hurt?

      Since when does your right not to be offended trump my right to say what I’d like?

      since when is there ANY speech that doesn’t upset somebody?

      Do you feel comfortable making the decision as to what speech is “insensitive” and which speech isn’t?

      Watch this, from the late Christopher Hitchens.


    • Shame on Kelly’s NYPD for monitoring Muslims.

      Why would any sane police department ever want to keep a weather eye on a group of people who are far more likely to commit crimes than others.

      When will the NYPD start watching the Amish more vigilantly?

  2. You are mistaken if you think that the University is a place of “objectivity and openness.” Who is admitted? What kinds of courses are taught by whom? Knowledge isn’t objective. It’s about who’s interpretation and opinion has more power to be deemed truth.

  3. Destin Sisemore says:

    We’re no longer arguing whether or not controversial figures should be allowed to speak at Brown. A professor at the community forum commented that we, as a community, should find a way to bring controversial speakers to campus in a way that truly promotes the free exchange of ideas, in a way that is productive for everyone. His comment was met with applause from both “sides.”

    The Taubman Center was not objective in the way that it invited Ray Kelly to speak. It painted Ray Kelly as someone to be admired. There was a clear tone of reverence in the event’s advertisements. Had the university not explicitly expressed reverence, had the university taken an objective stance, I could understand the arguments presented in this article. But it didn’t. So the protesters chose to express their discontent with the university endorsing a racist justice system.

    Before you defend Brown’s right to objectively promote discourse, make sure that Brown is actually being objective.

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