Opinion | Administrative interference limits academic freedom

Daniele Struppa, university president

Jerry Price, dean of students, and Helen Norris, university vice president and chief information officer, contributed to this column.

Each month, the dean of students hosts a community forum as a means to engage students on a broad range of campus climate issues. On Nov. 13, the forum centered around speakers who are accused of misconduct. A specific objective of this forum was to help students understand how campus speakers are selected and how students who object to the speaker can protest if desired – this topic was selected in part due to a recent situation involving a speaker invited to a class at Dodge College.

There were two key points introduced at the very beginning of the forum: First, that faculty have the academic freedom to invite any speaker to campus whom they believe will advance the objectives of their course, and second, that students have the right to protest a speaker, as long as their protest does not inhibit the rights of others attending the event.

The primary goal of academic freedom is not to protect the rights of speakers, but the rights of those who want to hear the speaker and the rights of those who want to protest.

Many universities try to spin and wordsmith their way out of controversial situations, rather than educate students on the key principles of academic freedom and free expression – we wanted the forum to be a candid conversation about these academic principles, and for the most part, we feel this was accomplished.

Toward the end of the forum, a student asked if Chapman would permit a convicted rapist to speak on campus. Jerry Price, the dean of students, reiterated: Faculty have the academic freedom to invite any speaker to campus whom they believe will advance the objectives of their course.

We recognize that sexual assault is a horrible crime that has impacted too many of our students and other Chapman community members, directly or indirectly. But even when the topic is something as upsetting as sexual assault, academic freedom holds that faculty members have the expertise to determine which speakers are appropriate, and administrators will not interfere.

Since the forum, some students seem dissatisfied with this answer, and have posted on social media that Chapman would allow a convicted rapist to interact with students. We are concerned this criticism suggests that further clarification of academic freedom and free expression is necessary.

Neither the president of the university, the dean of students nor any other administrator decides which speakers can be invited to classrooms – academic freedom grants that responsibility solely to the faculty member who teaches the class.

When a faculty member invites a speaker, neither the president of the university, the dean of students nor any other administrator can cancel that speaker.

We think that by allowing the president of the university, for example, control over who can speak, we would potentially be suppressing faculty’s viewpoints. Would any faculty support the idea that they need the permission of the president to invite a speaker? As some of us have pointed out in different contexts, this is a slippery slope. If we insinuate that the president (or the university through some other administrative body) can censor an invited guest, how can we protect Chapman from a potentially despotic administration that would use authority to promote only speech they agree with?

The price of having academic freedom is that sometimes we will have speech we detest, or speakers we despise. We can’t have one without the other.

You don’t have to take our word for it. We invite you to seek out a trusted professor and ask: Can you invite any speaker to your class that you feel would advance your course objectives, and does President Daniele Struppa, Dean Price or any other administrator have the authority to tell you otherwise? We will be surprised if you receive an answer different from what is outlined here.

We respect students’ rights to contest university policies and decisions and to advocate fiercely for changing them. The three of us, as well as other university leaders, are always open to considering your concerns. But when it comes to decisions related to curriculum and courses – including guest speakers – we believe it is very important that students understand that these are academic decisions that can be made only by faculty, not administrators.