I was delighted to see that Michael Bloomberg gave a Commencement Address at Harvard articulating the same sentiments I expressed in my post “Colleges Should Stand Up For Freedom of Speech!” The text is available in full on his website, and I plugged in the embed code above for the video of his talk.
Here are some key passages. I am in full agreement:
1. Great universities are places where people of all backgrounds, holding all beliefs, pursuing all questions, can come to study and debate their ideas – freely and openly.
Today, I’d like to talk with you about how important it is for that freedom to exist for everyone, no matter how strongly we may disagree with another’s viewpoint.
Tolerance for other people’s ideas, and the freedom to express your own, are inseparable values at great universities. Joined together, they form a sacred trust that holds the basis of our democratic society.
2. Repressing free expression is a natural human weakness, and it is up to us to fight it at every turn. Intolerance of ideas – whether liberal or conservative – is antithetical to individual rights and free societies, and it is no less antithetical to great universities and first-rate scholarship.
There is an idea floating around college campuses – including here at Harvard – that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism.
Think about the irony: In the 1950s, the right wing was attempting to repress left wing ideas. Today, on many college campuses, it is liberals trying to repress conservative ideas, even as conservative faculty members are at risk of becoming an endangered species. And perhaps nowhere is that more true than here in the Ivy League.
3. In the 2012 presidential race, according to Federal Election Commission data, 96 percent of all campaign contributions from Ivy League faculty and employees went to Barack Obama.
Ninety-six percent. There was more disagreement among the old Soviet Politburo than there is among Ivy League donors.
That statistic should give us pause – and I say that as someone who endorsed President Obama for reelection – because let me tell you, neither party has a monopoly on truth or God on its side.
When 96 percent of Ivy League donors prefer one candidate to another, you have to wonder whether students are being exposed to the diversity of views that a great university should offer.
Diversity of gender, ethnicity, and orientation is important. But a university cannot be great if its faculty is politically homogenous. In fact, the whole purpose of granting tenure to professors is to ensure that they feel free to conduct research on ideas that run afoul of university politics and societal norms.
When tenure was created, it mostly protected liberals whose ideas ran up against conservative norms.
Today, if tenure is going to continue to exist, it must also protect conservatives whose ideas run up against liberal norms. Otherwise, university research – and the professors who conduct it – will lose credibility.
Great universities must not become predictably partisan. And a liberal arts education must not be an education in the art of liberalism.
The role of universities is not to promote an ideology. It is to provide scholars and students with a neutral forum for researching and debating issues – without tipping the scales in one direction, or repressing unpopular views.
4. … a university’s obligation is not to teach students what to think but to teach students how to think. And that requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudging them, and determining whether the other side might actually make some fair points.
5. if students graduate with ears and minds closed, the university has failed both the student and society.
And if you want to know where that leads, look no further than Washington, D.C.
Down in Washington, every major question facing our country – involving our security, our economy, our environment, and our health – is decided.
Yet the two parties decide these questions not by engaging with one another, but by trying to shout each other down, and by trying to repress and undermine research that runs counter to their ideology. The more our universities emulate that model, the worse off we will be as a society.
And let me give you an example: For decades, Congress has barred the Centers for Disease Control from conducting studies of gun violence, and recently Congress also placed that prohibition on the National Institute of Health. You have to ask yourself: What are they afraid of?
6. We must not become a country that turns our back on science, or on each other. And you graduates must help lead the way.
On every issue, we must follow the evidence where it leads and listen to people where they are. If we do that, there is no problem we cannot solve. No gridlock we cannot break. No compromise we cannot broker.
The more we embrace a free exchange of ideas, and the more we accept that political diversity is healthy, the stronger our society will be.
7. Standing up for the rights of others is in some ways even more important than standing up for your own rights. Because when people seek to repress freedom for some, and you remain silent, you are complicit in that repression and you may well become its victim.
Do not be complicit, and do not follow the crowd. Speak up, and fight back.
You will take your lumps, I can assure you of that. You will lose some friends and make some enemies. But the arc of history will be on your side, and our nation will be stronger for it.
It is worth comparing the arguments Michael gives to those you can see in the links in “John Stuart Mill’s Brief for Freedom of Speech.” Michael quotes John Stuart Mill in one place, but articulates the fundamental logic of John’s argument in many other places in new words.