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October 31, 2002 - Image 5

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 2002-10-31

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

The discourse of dissent:
Academic freedom at the U'
n Honigman Auditorium this afternoon, Law Prof. Catharine
MacKinnon will deliver the 12th annual Davis, Markert,
Nickerson Lecture On Academic and Intellectual Freedom. In
honor of Clement Markert, Mark Nickerson and Chandler Davis,
three University
professors who were_
suspended for their
refusal to testify at L
a hearing of the -9
U.S. House
Committee on 1,
Activities. Both L __

Speaking of admissions

Davis and Nickerson U
were eventually terminated-
due to their actions. JESSICA YURASEK/Daily
Today, questions of academic
freedom and associated controversy are still a part of the intellectual
life of the University.
Academic freedom: A historical perspective

All educational institutions strive to
provide the best educational experience
for both students and faculty. Well, at
least that's the impression created by
administrators, spokesmen, the court
system and idealists. As a freshman, I
have memories of myopic high school
administrators and teachers, with the
expressed goal of educating the young
to become active citizens, trampling on
the basic principles of such an educa-
tional experience. In a sense, they want-
ed us all to be great citizens without
allowing us to experience citizenship.
University spokesmen constantly
tell students and parents that the Univer-
sity has the ideal environment to foster a
rich educational experience. And to
some extent that is true. There is a free-
flowing exchange of ideas on campus
and students have a number of rights
that simply do not exist in many other
educational settings.
Judging by how smoothly the Uni-
versity sailed through the recent Divest-
ment Conference, the expression policy
does not seem to impinge on freedom
of expression. Assistant General Coun-
sel Donica Thomas Varner said that the
goal of the University's expression poli-
cies is to set forth guidelines to allow
for the productive exchange of ideas for
protestors and for speakers. Varner went
on to say that the University does not
seek to create a "politically correct"
environment or establish acceptable
speech guidelines. These are all the

things that an idealistic college student
wants to hear. But, Varner went on to
say that freedom of speech is a right that
has to be used responsibly.
What does that mean? Well, it's not
entirely clear. The University has a sex-
ual harassment policy that is vague. The
definition includes "conduct which
results in negative effects even though
such negative effects were unintended."
It goes on to say that an incident will be
deemed sexual harassment "if a reason-
able person ... would consider it suffi-
ciently severe or pervasive to interfere
unreasonably with academic perform-
ance or participation..."
This policy is especially frightening
in light of some incidents in the Univer-
sity's past. For example, in 1988, the
Office of Affirmative Action issued a
speech code that specified prohibited
conduct. Prohibited conduct included
saying, "Women just aren't as good in
this field as men." There was actually a
section titled "You Are a Harasser
When..." Jokes about gays and les-
bians were prohibited as well as display-
ing the Confederate Flag on a residence
hall door.
Based upon what I know about
American government, Americans
enjoy various rights such as the Free-
dom of Speech, the Freedom to Bear
Arms and so on. I have not yet heard
about the right to never be offended.
Thankfully this code was ruled uncon-
stitutional in federal court.
The University received national
attention in 1992 when portions of an

exhibit on prostitution were taken down
because they were perceived as offen-
sive. Supposedly Law Prof. Catherine
MacKinnon, who has been named "cen-
sor of the year" in the past by the
ACLU, was behind the altering of the
exhibit. MacKinnon said the incident
was "a witch hunt by First Amendment
fundamentalists who are persecuting
and blacklisting dissident ... as art cen-
sors." While the ACLU may have used
the event to target MacKinnon, her
desire to create a politically correct
environment in which no one is ever
offended is irresponsible from an educa-
tional standpoint.
And then of course there was "Eng-
lish 317: How to be Gay." Prof. David
Halperin offered this course it explore
gay culture and the impact it has had on
literature. Regents candidates, many of
whom were running for re-election that
year, were livid, and members of the
state legislature tried to take away Uni-
versity funds. These politicians were in
a sense trying to gain control over what
is taught here, impinging on academic
freedom and educational exploration so
that they could win an election.
Supporting the right of people to
express themselves does not mean sup-
porting what they say. Academic free-
dom is the freedom to explore ideas. It
allows individuals and organizations to
say what they think and challenging
them when they're wrong.
Pesick is an LSA freshman and a member
of the Daily's editorial board.

In the late 1980s, the University
Board of Regents adopted procedures
for punishing offensive speech at the
University of Michigan. Those proce-
dures were struck down in federal
court as unconstitutional: The court's
opinion made clear that they had been
used to silence unpopular opinions.
Forbidden to punish unwelcome
speech formally, the University contin-
ued to discourage it informally. The
clearest example has been in the case
of the University's undergraduate
admissions procedures - a topic that
the campus sorely needs to discuss.
We need to discuss our undergrad-
uate admissions procedures because
they are going to change, whether or
not they survive the lawsuit now
underway against them. The current
procedures were adopted shortly after
the suit was filed, to replace proce-
dures that were likely to be over-
turned; and they were then frozen in
place by the fear that further revisions
would signal a lack of resolve in
defending affirmative action. The con-
tinued use of these procedures without
adjustment has produced a pent-up
demand for change. How the suit is
decided will determine what kind of
change is made, but change will be
made one way or another.
Revision of the University's admis-
sions procedures ought to be informed
by a frank discussion among teachers
and students about their experience
with the current system. Unfortunately,
that discussion cannot take place,
because senior officers of the Universi-
ty have so often spoken and acted in
ways designed to stifle it.
In general, the administration
has stifled discussion of admissions
by misrepresenting the current law-
suit as a challenge to diversity. As
has been shown in other states, there
are ways of achieving diversity with-
out explicitly taking race into con-
sideration in admissions. Those
alternative methods are open to
many objections, of course, but a
debate about how to achieve diversi-
ty is not a debate about whether to
do so. What's more, the point system
used in undergraduate admissions is
only one way, and an especially
crude way, of taking race into
account. One can therefore oppose
the University's current admissions
procedures while supporting affir-
mative action - and, a fortiori, sup-
porting the goal of diversity.
In misrepresenting its critics as
opponents of diversity, the administra-

tion has clearly tried to impugn their
integrity. In his first address to the
Senate Assembly, President Lee
Bollinger described the affirmative
action lawsuits as "posing a test of
character for all of us." If the lawsuits
are a test of character for all of us,
then those who support the plaintiffs
must have failed a test of character:
they must be bad people. How can we
hope to hold a discussion if some par-
ticipants have already been stigma-
tized in this way?
The administration then took up the
cry of "resegregation." Provost Nancy
Cantor was quoted as saying, "What
we are really talking about ... is a sys-
tematic effort to resegregate our most
selective institutions." The same term
appeared in statements by President
Bollinger and Associate Provost Lester
Monts. The term was a smear on the
character of anyone who might oppose
the administration on this issue.
On March 6, 2000, the University
Record ran a story under the headline
"Affirmative Action: major source of
white opposition is racial prejudice."
As it turned out, the research in ques-
tion depended on a tendentious defi-
nition of "racial prejudice:" in effect,
the researchers redefined the term in
such a way as to guarantee their con-
clusion. Of course, these researchers
are entitled to argue for their views, as
are the hundreds of other faculty who
publish equally tendentious claims
every day of the week. The question is
why the University gave this particu-
lar claim such prominent publicity,
presenting it as if it were an objective
scientific discovery. (The March 6
article is still linked to the Universi-
ty's web page of "Information on
Admissions Lawsuits.") The pre-
dictable effect was to demonize the
administration's critics as racists.
These and other statements by the
administration have had the result that
people who question the University's
admissions policies have been unable
to speak in public without fear of being
branded racists and segregationists by
the University's highest officials.
Although there have been public
forums on affirmative action, they
have invariably relied on outsiders to
represent the opposition - not
because there is no opposition within
our own community, but because it has
been silenced. Many of these forums
are face-offs between extremists rather
than the moderate discussions of the
sort that the campus needs.
Finally, the administration has
failed on several occasions to
defend intellectual freedom against

serious attack by protests identified
with issues of race. I will mention
the two worst incidents.
In February 2000, demonstrators
protesting alleged racism at the organi-
zation known as Michigamua prevent-
ed President Bollinger from delivering
a scheduled public address on the First
Amendment. The President later said
that, if the speaker had been anyone
but himself, he would have had the
demonstrators removed. Here mis-
placed modesty led President Bollinger
to establish a disastrous precedent:
Demonstrators had forcibly silenced a
duly scheduled speaker with impunity.
The University has a written policy
mandating the removal of protesters
who threaten to prevent a speaker from
addressing his or her audience. To my
knowledge, no University official has
bothered to say whether this policy will
be enforced in the future.
In March 2000, graduate students
who objected to the University's han-
dling of the sit-in at Michigamua with-
drew 3,000 volumes from the Shapiro
Undergraduate Library - the entire
contents of the library's first floor -
for the stated purpose of making them
unavailable to readers. The volumes
were carted off in a rented truck.
According to The Michigan Daily, a
"University spokesman ... said the
administration does not plan to release
an official response to the protest."
This statement was heartbreaking to
proponents of intellectual freedom: An
administration that had loudly dedicat-
ed itself to defending the "core values"
of the University apparently did not
regard access to books as a core value.
These incidents exacerbated the
effects of the administration's divi-
sive rhetoric on affirmative action.
They left the impression that physi-
cal attacks on the freedom to speak
or to read would be tolerated so long
as the attackers wrapped themselves
in the flag of diversity.
If we are to have the conversation
that we need to have about undergradu-
ate admissions, the new administration
must signal a decisive break with the
past. Our new President and Provost
should clearly indicate that differences
of opinion on admissions will no
longer be attributed to differences of
character, that imputations of segrega-
tionism and racism will no longer be
used to silence unpopular opinions,
and that the University genuinely wel-
comes contributions to the discussion
from all faculty and students.
Velleman is the James B. and Grace.J
Nelson Professor of Philosophy.


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