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Editorial: The function of the University

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.

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