‘Polarized debates pushed the bounds of American civil discourse during Election 2016. College campuses — long intended as bastions of freedom of speech for teachers and students alike — were and will continue to be in the thick of the political and ideological disagreement. For college administrators trying to maintain freedom of speech and an inclusive academic environment, the divided campus climate presents a diplomatic challenge: to ensure that people of all perspectives feel able to contribute to the discussion, regardless of how far outside of the college mainstream they may be- How can administrators protect voices from all sides of the debate, even as disagreements in other parts of the country turn ugly? How can colleges find peace through civility while maintaining healthy debate? In a ‘We The People’ conversation, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia (Jack) joins The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons to discuss what free speech on campus means today. ‘
Once she took the mic with a warm smile, Margaret Lowe started the event by warmly greeting everyone stating how ‘it’s wonderful to see such a special crowd this morning’. She introduced herself as the President of Atlantic Live, the institution that is hosting the event in Washington DC.
She warmly welcome everyone to yet another chapter of discusses on the event theme entitled “We the People”. She says that the words ‘We the people are the very first three words of the US constitution, and they effectively framed the founding father’s big plan to be a much more perfect union’.
‘We the People’ here at The Atlantic brings together people to a series of conversations and discuss and a serious of laws and civicus that binds us together’. She acknowledges that ‘it is fair to say that the whole notion of a more perfect union seem to be more of an anachronism. As you all know this country is so much polarized and not just in Washington but college campuses are also amongst the many places witnessing these sharp divides’.
She highlighted recent moments of controversies on several college campuses like Middlebury and Beckley where conservative speakers faced rebuke on campus. She acknowledges that ‘these events raised big questions about the future of free speech and whilst school activism is nothing new, the ability to accept and protect all points of views and all speeches is decidedly challenged’.
Margaret introduced the guest, Georgetown President John J. DeGioia. She says John is no stranger to these issues, running a major university at this point in time and hope to welcome President DeGioia. She thanked the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) for making this conversation and this series possible. She gladly invited and introduced Mary Katharine Richards’s AFT’s Executive Vice President to make a few remarks.
Mary took the podium thanking Margaret and all and says she is pleased to welcome everyone today and to have the AFT to be a part of this. She thanked Atlantic Live very much and Steve Clemons I particular for hosting the forum and also thanked President John J. DeGioia for being here for this conversation. She says the AFT is a proud sponsor of this series and debate because they have a real stake in the debate. She says that AFT is the largest higher education union in the United States and they represent more than a 130,000 college faculty, professional staff and graduate employees across the country. She thinks that the demography covered by AFT within the academic circles of higher education positions her organization to be at the pivot of such debates and essentially determined to open up debates on issues that affect college campuses.
She re-echoes the fact that college campuses have always been centers of discord, and are no stranger to these kinds of discords, dissent and civil disobedience. Margaret backed her claim by referencing the Georgetown University, where the leaders of anti-Vietnamese war movement who sought refuge on the college hill tops in early 1971, and how this sparked off an activist culture that continues even today. She said that this is a spirit epitomized by the Georgetown college grads currently organizing to be recognized for the work they do on campus.
She noted that after the college uprisings those heady decades, a school of thought, sociologist Delin Terrain actually predicted that the student movement would replace the labor movement as a key driver of social progress and equality in the West.
She was self-reassuring that this did n’t happen and as a ‘union leader’ she is pleased to say that ‘the labor movement is still alive, and well and kicking and active and fighting and so is the student movement. And she says the climate on campus remains lively especially after last fall’s election.
She wanted to reframe the debates over campus civility and free speech away from the merits of safe spaces, trigger warnings and micro aggressions that tend to dominate the debate for very important reasons. She thinks that by over focusing specifically on these worthy issues, we risk missing the bigger picture, the undermining of the very structures in which free speech occurs.
She shifted her remarks on other crucial issues of free speech like assault on academic freedom and professor watch list. She cited the proposed legislation in Iowa that demands professors disclose who they vote for as part of the application process. She bemoans the death threat received by one of their members Olga Perez Stable Cox of Orange Coast College for daring to disagree with the new US President. In the white hot glare of the new administration she says it is needed to protect civility and open debate on campus and we also need to safeguard and nurture a climate that is conducive to them. And we need to remember that while free speech from professors, students and staff is inviolable, outside speakers are our invited guest and protest is free speech as well.
Mary beckons Margaret and passes the micoer to Margaret to introduce ‘our very timely conversation for the day’. Margaret says that everybody agrees that civil conversations are part of what draws us all together today. Margaret warmly introduce the speaker John J. DeGioa.
She says: ‘John J. DeGioia is 48 president of Georgetown University and has held the job for 16 years, he knows the terrain and place intimately as he went to college and graduate school in Georgetown and taught there long before he became president”.
She says that Jack knows the terrain very well, and he is here to talk about the delicate and often difficult balancing act that confronts many university students, faculty and administration. He welcomes John J. DeGioia and his colleague Steve.
Steve Commins thanked Margaret and says the remarks were moving and very impressive. Steven acknowledges that there is a lot of things going on in the world of free speech in academia and free speech in higher education. He reflected on prior conversation with John J. DeGioia, and says that there has been a prior introduction of this topic in past conference in New York especially during discussions on how Georgetown as the university under tough challenges steps forward on very hard and tough issues on the descendants of those that have been slaves and sold. He refers to the endowment set up for the descendants of freed slaves under Georgetown and the discussions around free speech, the debates that came by way of free speech and how tough that all was. Steven reflected further and says since then, there has been a lot on all these fronts. Steve makes a flashbacks on his political science professor’s remarks who say “You really never know the norms of a system until you really witness it under stress”. So he asks Jack the question ; ‘how would the norms of our political system doing under stress and how do the norms of Georgetown University doing under stress?.
Jack DeGioia thinks all in all the norms are holding pretty well but recognizes that there are challenges as we have witnessed across the country and try to find the appropriate balance between providing for the widest possible range of free speech and expression and ensuring civility and respect for the dignity of all our people. He says the general commitment to the widest range of speech expression is holding very strongly but it is under considerable pressure giving some of the more significant challenges that have emerged from specific campuses.
Steve reflects on the work and efforts of J. DeGioia in 2003 by bringing provocative folks on campus to speak. He added that ‘or when these trustees might feel uncomfortable and threaten you on your decisions’? J. DeGioia answers no to the question and explains that they have a long history of working very hard on these issues, and he has been well grounded by being part of the university community for 42 years. J. DeGioia goes on to reflect on their efforts in the mid 1980’s they made a decision that they were going to capture the deepest commitment they had to the freedom of free expressions and the set up policies that will guide the University community. Jack noted: ‘We put that in place formally in 1989. It has come to guide us. We do not limit speech either on the content on the view or the person expressing the view. We conduct and are able to provide a context for that commitment requires a community that respects and consistent with the spirit of the first amendment, reasonable time, place and manner restrictions, and so any one in their community can invite anyone to come and speak, and usually it’s those moments which are the most challenging for anyone in my role. And often I will hear from members of my community asking why I allowed this person or invited this person or that person. We don’t limit either on the content or on the person expressing their view. Now when they have particularly controversial speakers, they can do other things and provide other kinds of programming to ensure a full range of perspectives are heard. Our response always to the challenges of speeches is more speech.’
Steve further recounts a recent incidence which he thought was perfect for the discussions today, and referenced the point at the Middlebury College where Charles Murray was called to speak, which evolved into a violent protest. He noted that this is the case of the Atlantic too, which prides itself on bringing people 360* degrees discussions, and bringing people from different points of views. In the case of Middlebury College, he maintained that this was violent. Steve says: ‘Peter Beinart in the Atlantic profiled this on this subject and wrote a letter to liberals and that this must not be allowed to happen to liberals, and liberals must not allow this and we have the right to defend everyone to speak’. Steve then ask J. DeGioia ‘What’s the temperature at Georgetown?…’ because you have had similar experiences and kind of situation.
DeGioia believes that ‘there is a profound depth to the commitment if you think about the very idea of the university, in particularly with the American context, the core set of values that animated us from our founding. First and foremost is a commitment to academic freedom. That means the members of our faculty are free to pursue the truth where ever it leads them. One of our colleagues who have described this Stephanie cline described this as the ‘ungovernable play of the inquiry mind. And part of the responsibility of the university leadership is to ensure we protect the framework for academic freedom. This is the pursuit of truth in one’s discipline, wherever that may lead. And in addition to that we are committed to the freedom of speech and expression. That’s also deeply held as a core value on our campuses. We have other value, such as shared governance that deeply animates us. We have a deep foundation to draw on as we are wrestling with these latest set of challenges, but he has personally and the university has wrestled with these year-in year-out as far as he has been part of the university community’.
Jack DeGioia says some of those incidents can be instructive. He gave a background of Georgetown University as being the oldest Catholic and Jesuit University in the US founded in 1789. He says as a Catholic Jesuit University, the founder Archbishop John Carroll was trained in Europe and at the heart of the enlightenment brought those values from Europe to Georgetown and as a fusion of catholic values and enlightenment values. So we were founded as a fusion of catholic values and enlightenment values, the idea of that we will be open to the free exchange of ideas goes all the way back to our founder. He draws a very touchy reference to the years of 1978 where the then President of Georgetown University Father Timothy Healy had to travel all the way to El Salvador to bestow upon Óscar Romero Roman Catholic priest in El Salvador an honorary degree. He says the visit and trip was a very intentional act to show solidarity and support for the Catholic Church during those difficult times. Two years later Óscar Romero was murdered on the very alter where that honorary degree ceremony took place. Two years later in the mid 1980, some of our university community invited Roberto D’Aubuisson to campus and there were close links to what unfolded in El Salvador and the role that Roberto D’Aubuisson played in that country. Jack says that protecting that forum was a very challenging moment for us. When Roberto ‘was planning to come to campus we recognized that the security cost of the forum will be enormous and so we said to the sponsoring group that this would be the bill, they could not afford it and so essentially blocked him from speaking, although that is not the way we intended it to be or manage the forum. So as we wrote the policies in the late 80s we made clear that no one should be blocked to speak but you have to be responsible for the cost of the security of forum. He came back and so we do protect the forum and we allowed him to speak and it was very very difficult period for us because here we had the most vocal critics from allowing him to speak came from our own people at the Jesuit community on campus but we protected that forum and we allowed him to speak. And that gives you a little bit of the sense of how seriously we take this responsibility’.
Steven praises Jack and says that it was great and that Jack was right to preserve their credibility. Steve takes the opportunity to reflect on the role of the media and the Atlantic’s work as well and how they have done so many things that were often hard decisions to protect free speech.
Steve references Richard Edelman and says he and Jack are familiar with him and have spent time with him. Steve says ‘some of you may know the Edelman Trust Barometer who showed in his writing efforts that basically for every year for 17 years’. Steve points out to Jack that ‘there has been a solid decline in institutions, in trust in the media, trust in corporations, trust in you guys, and it just feels like the world seems to be eroding into a gutter (maybe I am over-stating it), but I know that you worry about this, you worry about this erosion of trust), and asked if Jack was all powerful how can he go out to help restore this trust, and in Georgetown as well’.
Jack says that the references in Middlebury, and President Parton’s letter to the university community on Friday restores trust and reminds everyone of the values that animates the community. He said that ‘this is the moment that demands the best of us, and all of our institutions, and if we can demonstrate the commitment that we have to the deepest values that we have that have animated us and guide us and if we can do that in this moment, I think it would help to restore trust’.
He went on further to explain what is at stake for us, and describes ‘the Element of Trust Barometer’ and how Richard shows that after 17 years of this barometer, trust is in crises. “All of us we are all at the lowest point that we have been. The reason why I think this so pernicious for the narrative about higher education is that higher education has never been more urgent for more and more of our people.
He tries to put a little bit of perspective on this, and goes on to describe in statistical details that 11.6 million Jobs were created from January 2010 to January 2016 and the net 80,000 of those jobs went to high school graduates. 2 thirds of all new jobs created in require post-secondary education; there is virtually no unemployment with a college degree. That does not mean it is not challenging. The average young person will change jobs 5 times in 10 years and not achieve financial independence until age 31. It’s a volatile difficult challenging environment for all of our young people but if you don’t have post-secondary education, it is brutally difficult to be able to move your way through in this moment. Jack goes on to back his claim by explaining that “Every year 400,000 of our young people are in the top half of the SAT or ACT and if you look at them 10 years later they will not have a post-secondary degree.
To the question asked by Steve, whether Jack supports the career education movement, Jack answered in the affirmative by saying ‘absolutely’! Steve then makes an allusion to Peter Thiel’s ideas and the fact that Thiel is someone who sends a clarion call ‘for all the brilliant young divas out there to drop out and make your own way’. Steve asked whether this effort of Peter Thiel is impacting or helping or hurting. Jack says that he does not think that this is helping the overall narrative at all especially when that is eroding and breaking the trust in higher education. Whist he thinks that Peter’s project is one that focuses on some incredible gifted prodigies essentially, on the other hand, he ‘does not believe that should distract us from the most important set of issues that we confront which is ensuring ever more access and ever more opportunity for our young people’.
Steve referenced Asra Nomani an Iranian Muslim American who supported Donald Trump and found out that one of the teaching faculty members at Georgetown tweeted against her for supporting trump. He says that there was lot of vulgarity in the exchanges and I guess vulgarity is protected by free speech too. Steve reflected on the feedbacks: ‘There were conservative groups writing to me about Miss Nomani, but I did n’t hear from Liberals saying we need to protect everyone’s rights. Is there a view that if you are conservative group you going to support conservative speakers and if you are liberal groups you going to support liberals and that the group on campus are captured by prospective and passion and not really capturing that broader principled commitment and something is getting missing in the advocacy for these speakers’?
Jack nods in affirmation to Steve’s claim and asserts that it is a great question and he ‘does not doubt that there are very strong advocates for particular positions in our students body who will ensure that certain speakers are part of the discuss in our community.’ He has been part of it for more than 40 plus years and has seen lots of different ways in which students are really engaged in trying to understand their thoughts their positions.
“We ‘ve had the widest range of speakers and people coming to our campus in the course of the last months, we run a series through our coop school public policies the exit interviews. These are members of parliament coming and distinguished speakers coming in to our school campus to offer perspectives to our community. If you ever visit during one of our guest distinguished speakers you can see the level of engagement, civility and seriousness of purpose of our students”.
Jack, the President of Georgetown further made a reference to vital debates on campus and re-echoes the act that ‘the Q & A at Gaston Hall Georgetown University campus is among one of the most extra ordinary experiences you will have’ and re-echoes that ‘this is a moment that demands the very best of everyone and he is confident that we will see that’.
Steve builds an argument for his next question when he tells Jack that as part of the spirit of ‘We the People’ it is built around the notion of Civitas, that we can have struggles and we don’t need to be all warm and fussy or kind of, we can struggle, we are all on the same boat, we all under the same roof at the end of the day and that its going to be mutual respect built in this debate.
Steve then identify a missing point and things about what we can do to get people not just broadcasting our positions loudly but rather actually engaging and thinking through the merits of the other sides. He kind of thinks something is missing in our schools.
Jack then replies by stating that he ‘does n’t believe something is missing, but where it is missing. it is harder to do that in a more public context. Georgetown still has the center for contemporary Arab studies in the US which was the leading place to study in the Arab world. Over the years, Georgetown and the first Catholic University in 1968 that had the full time Rabbi, the first American university to have a full-time Imam, we established the center for the study of Jewish civilization over the last years and just last year we establish the leading center for the forensic study of the holocaust. In our community you will have the opportunity to be able to pool from those resources and try to establish your framework for engaging the world’.
Steve asked: ‘Are you worried at all about the discussion about a post-fact society and a post- fact politics? We are here in Washington, you educate students in Washington- We ‘ve got a debate going on about fundamental rationality, empirical evidence in science going on right now. Are you worried?
Jack replies saying ‘Yeah! Very much so..But If you put this in an academic context this is in our curve for about 40 years that we have been engaged in terms of trying to come to terms with enlightenment, the result of enlightenment, the success of the enlightenment, our commitment to the truth, our understanding of truth and some of the very practices of the university. For example let’s focus on science for a minute. The National Academy of sciences has been under some political pressure in recent years. Well the very model that we embody, which is, we pursue the truth, we do everything we can to understand the deepest levels of reality as we possibly can reach. We then share that, but remember that in our context it’s always provisional, it’s always subject to another scholar and another researcher coming on to say, wait a minute, I found something here, it’s a little bit different than that”. So he argues that there are often contrasting view points.
Jack builds his argument on the truth that defines freedom of expression: ‘Is truth part of the inherent structure of reality or is it a social construction? Of course it’s both. In science we really work to discover what the inherent structure of our world. In our social life, we are building the framework for that, and that’s what social science and humanities contribute to’.
Steve pushes his questions much further probing into that “So if President Trump were a student of yours jack, what will you have share with him?
Jack replies “I will love to have him in our seminar, I taught one a year ago about truth. It’s call telling truth. Basically, we try to look at; ‘How do you establish truth claims in the natural sciences, in the social sciences, in humanities? What enables you to have confidence you are in possession of the truth? Then what do you do when you come into challenges into what you possess? How do you make your case, how do you defend the positions that you have? We believe that in a dialogue, as rigorous as we can be, together we can arrive at the truth and in that process together change things.”
Steve takes a lot of interest in what Jack has done in taking on the challenges of dealing with the historical decisions made, and some ugly ones relating to the decisions of the selling of slaves, that became part of the endowment buildings, even though from a different era.
Steve made a reference to the extensive writings on the pages of the Atlantic Live, that powerfully portrays the relationship between Georgetown and the descendants of the freed slaves, and the reparation efforts that Jack has been involved in. He says there are some of these burden and a lot of these legacy that exist in our institutions, in our cities, in our business that were built on the backs and lives of Africans, African Americans and I was interested in what you did, why you did it, how is it going.
Jack thanked Steve and says he was pleased to answer the question and continue a conversation on this topic that he started with Atlantic Live, and brings history into perspective in this way. “The Georgetown story is one that we ‘ve known for a long time, we ve taught it for a long time, and in 1838, Georgetown was the beneficiary of the sale of 272 enslaved women, children and men, on plantations that the Jesuit order had in Maryland. And the people responsible for that sale have previously served as the president of Georgetown University. And the University’s connection to it is two-fold, we have a building on campus named for him, and second, of the proceeds of the sale, about $17,000 in 1838 came to the University. It was very important at the time, more importantly the institution benefitted that and through that sale by the institution of slavery, we’ve taught that story and we actually have our first digital website and story which was put up about that sale in the mid1990s and put the first documents online for people to be able to see. A building was also renovated with The Father Thomas Mulledy’s name on it, who in his time was a giant among the leadership of the catholic church. So we began a project .as we were getting ready to open up the building where we put together a working group on slavery memory and reconciliation and wanted to come to terms with what we meant for us to have that part of our history alive with us today, and what it meant for us to engage that part of our history. The working group began its work in September of 2015 and they gave their report in September of 2016. Along the way, we were surprised by two things. One was how few of our community really knew the story; it was never something we have hidden but never something that was fully embraced of our understanding of who we were. Second, whilst we were on this journey, a number of descendants expressed interest in connecting with us, so we set out to meeting with the descendants in Washington State, in New Orleans, in Bert Mer Rouge, in Maguine Louisiana where many of the original enslaved women and children men were’.
He says it was an incredible blessing for him personally be able to engage with folks who have been through it, referring to the descendants of slavery and those who have experienced it. Jack brings our shared humanity and commonality of purpose in his reflection.
“And what we share in common is try to understand profoundly how we can use this experience this history of this university the connection of these individuals through their families, and the work that we as a university can engage in this moment to try to understand our responsibilities. Along the way we also launched another project. I presented an address in February of 2016, on racial justice in America and Georgetown response on what we look at seriously as what could we do as a university in this moment to address the fact that we never address. Part of what we are wrestling with in America today is the legacy of never having addressed or never having resolved the original evil of slavery in the mid part of the 19th century, we never having ameliorated the effects of the original evil and so consequently we wrestle with that today.
Jack details the stark polarities that exist in a much more descriptive way: ‘The past summer we just issued a report on our center for health despair located right here in the city where the Navy Yard. If you are white and I am black in the city of Washington in 2016, your life expectancy as a white male is 15 years longer than mine, and blacks are 6 times more likely to suffer from diabetics and that’s today we can take you across a range of issues, wealth creation, housing employment opportunities, and we are living with the legacy of slavery and subsequent segregation this moment and the challenges for Georgetown and why this has been such an incredible opportunity to engage in these set of questions, is that it is enabling us to discover how to be a new kind of university engaging in these questions in a new kind of way.’
Steve asked – ‘and you have made a deal with these universities where they can come to the college. Am I wrong’?
Jack says: “No no no just a little bit and I can correct that, you are close enough though, I know what you are referring to…”
Jack noted that as a private university, the school have always provided very special care and attention to those who have enduring relationship with our community and specifically to the children of their faculty and staff and to alumni to those who have sustained a very deep engagement with Georgetown university.
“At a time of admissions we look very carefully to determine whether or not all things being equal, there is something there that we pay special attention to. What I described when we developed the report in September this past fall, we intend to give the same care and attention to children of descendants and as we have been out on this journey we discovered that some alumni are descendants so it was fun”.
Steve says he was very much taken with these set of remarks which Georgetown President Jack gave in February of 2003, 14 years ago and they seem to capture the tensions today very well.
Steve clearly reflected on the arguments for and against free speech that Jack made in his presentation 14 years ago.
“You seem to open it arguing against wide aperture for free speech”, reading from a note from Jack’s speech. ‘Universities are predicated on a fundamental trust that permits the broadest possible intellectual freedom and autonomy. Universities are also committed to the idea that the truth is achieved in dialogue. To limit dialogue a priori is to show a lack of confidence in the capacity of the individual to discover truth. The university is a catalyst and container of conflict; and there will be conflict. Active debate and discussion of ideas are, in fact, the signs of a healthy intellectual community’.
Steve says he loves this paragraph and he feels that it is really really hard to live that, and draws Jack attention to his more probing question. “You are Georgetown and you are Ivy League and you are like up there and the grand purpose of schools and what do you tell the smaller Liberal arts schools when this is going on all over the country and I am much interested when you don’t have the resources of Georgetown, the stature of Georgetown what guidance can you give some of the smaller places that are all struggling with this, what is the short cut to actually helping them standby these sorts of principles. It’s getting tougher though.
Jack recognizes that ‘it’s tougher for everyone and I would not want to suggest for a moment that I will be able to offer to anyone else regarding the dynamics within their communities. But What I will say to them Steve, that there are core set of values, that define who we are as colleges and university. Take away those values; we are no longer colleges and universities. I mention three of them so far, our commitment to academic freedom, our commitment to free speech and expression, our commitment to shared governance. Take those things away and we are not, we would not be able to sustain the very idea of the university. Its not about prestige or wealth or selectivity or what your stature is, it is about who you are, what you are, your institutions values that animate you’.
Jack said that he believe that every place struggles to sustain those values. His speech was meant to explain how he intended to handle some challenging moments like the ones we are experiencing now, that is to keep the forum open.
But this is a contested idea and he intends not to limit free speech and so they have maintained the forum and kept it open. He says that he has a profound respect for these kind of arguments and in the context of the university, if we take away this ability for freedom, we take away our ability to perform our roles in society.