Opinion

Opinion | Kumble R. Subbaswamy

Academic freedom is the key to truth — and to democracy

FILE - In this March 2, 2017, file photo, Middlebury College students turn their backs to author Charles Murray during his lecture in Middlebury, Vt. After a series of protests around the country, some institutions are rethinking their security and tactics in an age of growing political polarization. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke, File)
Lisa Rathke/AP Photo
Middlebury College students turned their backs to author Charles Murray during his lecture in March.

It’s commencement season, and across the country universities are welcoming speakers, awarding honorary degrees, and sending off their graduates. But as we prepare to send our graduates out into the world, I am also mindful of the fundamental principles that define our universities and of the importance of those principles in informing our public discourse.

More than 850 years ago, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick Barbarossa, issued the Authentica habita, granting imperial protection for traveling scholars. This seminal document ensured that research and scholarship could develop throughout the empire independent of government interference, and shielded scholars from reprisal for their academic endeavors. These concepts, the foundation for what we now refer to as “academic freedom,” have, over the centuries, enabled some of the most significant advances in the history of humankind.

As chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I work with my colleagues in an environment envied by others. Through the inventiveness of trial and error, the exchange of ideas, peer critique, heated debate, and sometimes even ridicule, we put ourselves out there, focused on our research and scholarly pursuits. Without the freedom to experiment, to fail, to persuasively defend our work, we would not learn, and then improve, and eventually succeed. Without this freedom, we would not be able to pass on to our students the importance of pursuing the truth.

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Today, in this age of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and increasing intolerance for opposing viewpoints, the defense of this treasured ideal is more important than ever.

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We live in a time when the infinite amount of information available at our fingertips could have a democratizing effect on the dissemination of information. Indeed, the Internet has presented us with the opportunity to explore any topic we wish — examining it from every conceivable angle. But too often, people shun the availability of different perspectives. Instead, they exclusively return to places that share their own worldview, which in turn, perpetually reinforces their belief system.

The divisiveness in the country emerged in part from these perpetually reinforcing echo chambers and the resulting calcification of opposing worldviews. If there are no questioning voices to break through these echo chambers, the tools of truth will no longer be needed. Scientific method and research will become unnecessary: Who needs data or analysis when truth becomes merely a matter of opinion? In this emerging alternative universe, having reliable sources isn’t an issue: Everyone in the chamber believes everyone else. And who needs rigorous standards for expertise? When anyone can make an unfounded assertion and call it “fact,” the hierarchy for bona fide credentials is flattened.

As researchers, scholars, and teachers, it is our responsibility to protect the pursuit of truth on our college campuses. We must challenge the preconceived notions of our students and society at large through rigorous, fact-based presentation and the dissemination of information based on scholarly processes.

It is imperative that the university be a place where the great issues of the day are vigorously debated, whether they be economic, social, philosophical, or political. And while a university community must not tolerate hate speech, on a free and open campus no idea should be banned or forbidden.

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Earlier this year, protesters at Middlebury College shut down a scheduled public discussion between a faculty member and a controversial guest speaker, with some protesters later physically attacking both the professor and the speaker. And at UC Berkeley, riots broke out when a controversial speaker came to campus, and a talk by another speaker was cancelled due to security concerns.

This suppression of opposing viewpoints doesn’t make those viewpoints go away, it only shields them from the critical review that would expose their flaws. If we limit ourselves only to speech with which we agree, we do ourselves — and our students — a great disservice. Freedom of expression and the exploration of new and varied ideas are at the heart of what it means to be on a university campus.

To reach full intellectual potential, we must constantly challenge ourselves by exposing ourselves to the richly varied ideas and information. It is up to us then, as individuals, to sort through this cacophony of viewpoints and reach our own conclusions.

Some days, we will celebrate the manifestations of this freedom; other days, we may find it repugnant. It is not our reaction to the various manifestations that matters; it is the ongoing process that must be protected. Only by acknowledging freedom as an absolute do we have any chance of eventually arriving at the truth.

Now, more than 850 years after the Authentica habita, we must continue to defend academic freedom in all its forms. In doing so, we will play our own small part in improving the human condition through advances in science and technology, lifting the human spirit through the arts and humanities, and fostering public discourse that is governed by reason.

Kumble R. Subbaswamy is chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.