Free Speech and Community

July 05, 2016

Dear campus community members,

 You likely have seen that UNC’s process for addressing student concerns about bias is receiving widespread attention. Unfortunately, many accounts dramatically mischaracterize both our process and intentions. Fortunately, cooler heads prevail at UNC, and I am confident in our ability to work together to refine the process to ensure that it upholds the principles of free speech and academic freedom while fulfilling our obligation to create a safe and supportive environment for students.

 It goes without saying that we cannot tolerate any limitation on free speech, academic freedom or diversity of opinion at UNC. Nor can we tolerate discrimination, harassment or bias. These are absolutes. I am also absolutely committed to creating a welcoming and inclusive community, which is much harder to define. This requires ongoing communication about what we value and how we expect each other to act, matters that can’t be dictated by rules or policies.

 We are required, both for accreditation and by Title IX, to have a process for collecting and addressing student concerns. Oftentimes, these concerns don’t rise to the level of law-based complaints such as discrimination or retaliation. On one hand, this is a good thing; on the other hand, it leaves a lot of room for judgment, and where there is judgment, there is always room for disagreement. Some of the bias response reports suggest an inappropriate effort to influence what happens in our classrooms; this is troubling and will not be repeated. UNC is committed to the principles of academic freedom.  

 Our bias response process was created to address concerns arising from student-to-student interactions that aren’t governed by rules and regulations. When students began submitting concerns involving faculty and staff, the scope of the process broadened because there was no other formal avenue for addressing the concerns. Ideally, a broader conversation would have preceded this broadening of scope. Nonetheless, we still have the opportunity to work together, through our ordinary governance processes, to establish a process that meets all of our obligations as a university.

 Upholding free expression and academic freedom is not antithetical to being a welcoming and inclusive campus. Talking openly about the inherent tensions between these things is hard and messy work, but conversations like this speak to the very essence of being a university.

 It is unfortunate when those at the extremes of the political spectrum attempt to portray civil interaction and community building as the enemies of free speech. But we know better. Of course we do not condone limits on free speech, but that does not prevent us from engaging in thoughtful and provocative discussion about how we can build community within the context of free expression. Protecting free speech, preventing discrimination and creating a civil learning environment are not mutually exclusive. As a university community, we have an absolute responsibility to do all three.

 I look forward to campus discussions about this important matter when all of our faculty and students return in the fall.