Tomorrow Butler University will confer degrees upon approximately 1,000 students, who will experience a range of emotions as they reflect upon their college years and their futures. I normally also find myself in a reflective mood this time of year, thinking about how well Butler University has educated and served these graduates, and how much we will miss their presence on campus.
As Butler has found itself in the media the past couple days, I must admit that my self-reflection is more intense than usual as I consider the range of opinions, emotions, and comments coming our way about the role of our University in the education and development of students. While I am always cautious about overreacting when in the eye of the storm—especially when all the facts of a situation are not public—it does seem an appropriate time for me to share some thoughts with the community.
As has been the case when I have previously commented on Butler matters, I have had the advantage of grounding myself on Butler’s history, values, and traditions. A consistent thread going back to the founding of the University by Ovid Butler is a commitment to all people and ideas. Thus my job as Ovid’s successor is to ensure that our community is a just, fair, and safe place in which all people may thrive equally.
The last couple days I have heard from many who have questioned whether or not we have upheld the value of being a fair and safe place for all political ideas. This viewpoint is based upon the Trumpism and U.S. Democracy course being offered at Butler next fall. Information on the course can be found online.
Many people believe Butler should not offer this course, indicating it presents a one-sided political position or that it called into question the President. I disagree with that view. The more complete description of the course makes it clear that the educational objectives are quite consistent with our role as educators, namely, to promote critical inquiry and to engage our students on topics, even if controversial. Secondly, I defend the long-standing principle of academic freedom and the right of our faculty to teach courses that they believe advance knowledge, and to do so without fear of censorship.
I find myself particularly sensitive to a prevalent theme of criticism that Butler may be failing when it comes to presenting a balanced political perspective. Many who have made that point also connect it with a commonly held perception that universities, as a whole, are liberal-minded. While I’ll set aside comments on the latter, I do agree that Butler needs to ensure that we present a more balanced political perspective, thereby adhering to our University’s foundational values.
Butler does not do a regular inventory of all courses to ensure that there is perfect balance of various viewpoints at all times. There is no university I know of that would take on that task. I might also add that the job of a president, provost, or dean is not like that of a movie theatre manager who may decide not to show a movie because it may be controversial. Some have suggested we cancel the course, however, that is not a path a university would pursue unless there is truly a legitimate and compelling reason to do so, one akin to yelling fire in a movie theatre, if I am to stick with that metaphor.
What we can do as leaders of Butler University is to work diligently to incent and support a broader representation of viewpoints in and out of the classroom. My self-reflection on the eve of Commencement is that we must do better on this very important point. If an educational opportunity does indeed focus on only one side of the political spectrum, then we must find ways to offer opportunities on the other side, and we cannot be swayed by the current political or social environment at the time.
More specifically, I have decided that the explicit focus of the upcoming academic year’s Celebration of Diversity Distinguished Lecture Series will engage our community in the topic of civil discourse across political lines around contentious political issues and will ensure speakers who represent a wide range of opposing political ideologies. I’m charging Academic Affairs and Student Affairs leadership to build programs and activities around this theme.
As I consider my own graduation, as a Religious Studies major at John Carroll University, I remember a Philosophy of Religion course taught by a professor who consistently presented a point of view that would have students question religion and the ability to prove the existence of God. I truly thought the teacher was an atheist. Many years later when reading his obituary, I was stunned to read that he was a devout Catholic, attended Church faithfully, and taught religion classes to the parish youth. There is great value when a faculty member sets aside personal opinion and beliefs, and I am quite confident Butler faculty strive to do the same.
As we dedicate ourselves to our founding values and ensure all viewpoints are presented and supported at Butler University, I do hope we can encourage our students to understand the value of engaging in dialogue and courses that take them out of their comfort zone. If so, Butler students who receive their diplomas will be much better prepared for the complex world in which we now live.
My congratulations to our graduating students and my sincere thanks to our outstanding faculty and staff for their dedication to challenging and educating our students.