Thursday, September 29, 2005

Open letter to Bucknell University's Executive to the President

This isn't the usual sort of thing I blog about but this post does deal with academic freedom, something I feel very strongly about.

The Instapundit linked a posting in Brain-Terminal's blog. It describes the experiences of three students at Bucknell University who were called onto the carpet of Dr. Kathleen Owens' office. (She's the Executive Assistant to the President of Bucknell). The students are members of the Bucknell Conservatives Club.

It seems that Dr. Owens wasn't too happy with some phrasing in a campus-wide e-mail the student's sent out advertising a speaker for their club (a military officer talking about his experiences in Afghanistan). To me, her reaction was rather over-the-top which prompted me to send the following e-mail:

Dear Dr. Owens,

Congratulations. It seems that your actions have generated some interest in the "blogosphere". The concept of freedom of speech, not to mention thought, seems to be a rather low priority in Bucknell University's hallowed halls.

I only know the "facts" of your treatment of three students in your school's Conservatives' Club from what I've read on the internet. However, I understand that you've not denied the students' version.

If my representations are inaccurate then you have my heartfelt apology in advance for what follows.

I understand that you called these students into your office to complain about their use of the phrase "hunting terrorists" in a campus-wide e-mailing. This mailing was to announce a speaker they had invited to their club (a military officer). If this is so, then you should be ashamed of yourself. In today's era of political correctness, it is difficult enough educating young people in the art and science of free, independent and critical thinking. The last thing that society at large needs are universities that stifle such freedom and encourage lockstep, "INSIDE the box" thinking.

Your seemingly trivial actions in this instance do nothing more than crystallize the value that at least you, and possibly the institution you represent, give to the value of free speech and thought. Since when is it your job to foster conformity and mindless adherence to a single ideology?

There was nothing wrong with referring to what we are doing in Afghanistan as "hunting terrorists". It is a fact. Most people throughout the country consider such people as animals. One would then expect that the hunting analogy would be readily acceptable to the vast majority of Americans not to mention decent people throughout the world.

Perhaps you would have preferred a more antiseptic term but that is a personal preference that you have NO right to impose upon your student body. You're perfectly free to openly criticize their words but not to stifle them.

It is my opinion (arrived at through my own version of freedom of thought) that you owe those three students an apology. More importantly, as an educator, you owe an apology to Bucknell's student body as well. The first is necessary as a matter of personal decency in that that's what we do when we make a mistake.

The second is necessary in that it is essential that you reaffirm your institution's vital role in educating young people, not merely in facts but in critical thinking.

Failure to commit to such a public apology belies an anti-academic attitude that values conformity and acquiescence. Promulgating such an attitude brings Bucknell one step closer to an irrelevant role in The Great Discussion.


John S. Ford, M.D., M.P.H.
Assistant Professor
David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA

As a professor of medicine, I don't usually run into too many issues of political correctness in my teaching. However, freedom of speech on campus is an issue that everyone in academia should be concerned about.

Labels: ,