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Kay Norton

Photo by Barry LaPoint

November 23, 2016

Upholding Academic Freedom, Free Speech while Building Community

Academic freedom is the foundation upon which every university is built — the foundation upon which we continue to build the University of Northern Colorado. It is the essential foundation of our students’ learning process. It ensures that scholars are free to be scholars — to ask hard questions, to test new ideas, to weigh in on controversial topics as they teach and do research unfettered by outside interests. Only through the free inquiry and exploration of ideas afforded by academic freedom can we deliver on our promise for transformative education.

Hand-in-hand with academic freedom comes community. One scholar does not make a university; this requires a community of scholars. UNC’s greatest strength lies not in the sum of our individual efforts, but in how much more we can achieve by working together. Building community is hard and messy work. It can’t be accomplished by rules, laws, regulations or codes. It depends instead on human beings — on our good faith effort to do what is right, on the give and take of personal interactions, on trial and error, on some measure of trust that together, we will figure it out.

As you may have heard or seen in the news this summer, part of our ongoing, messy community-building process recently became very public. Some practices we developed in a good faith effort to respond to students’ concerns raised serious questions about our commitment to academic freedom, indeed, about our commitment to uphold the basic Constitutional right to free speech. Before I explain how we arrived there, let me say this: UNC is unequivocally committed to free speech and academic freedom and to community.

I am pleased to tell you that we’ve already begun to re-think our process for student concerns. Provost Robbyn Wacker is working with the Faculty Senate to establish how we will handle student concerns about academic matters through the colleges, and Interim Dean of Students Gardiner Tucker is leading the work to clarify how to handle non-academic concerns. Our new approach will uphold the principles of free speech and academic freedom as well as our commitment to create a safe and supportive environment for students. It will address all student concerns not covered by the Discrimination Complaint Procedures, and we will no longer have a separate process for bias-related concerns.

UNC is not alone. Questions about how to navigate the intersection of academic freedom, free speech and community are at the fore across the nation as universities welcome a generation of students who are more diverse than ever, connect to the world through social media as never before, get inundated with increasingly polarized messages, and, sometimes, question the value of the rights and responsibilities that have long been considered essential to the nature of universities. Our promise to students is the opportunity for transformative education — but we cannot fulfill this promise without the benefit of free speech and academic freedom, so it remains our obligation to uphold these fundamental concepts.

–Kay Norton, excerpted from her annual fall address to campus, Sept. 7.