Faculty Honors Dinner Remarks

Good evening everyone.

Thank you for being here.

And a warm “Congratulations!” to all our honorees.

Coming together as colleagues to recognize and celebrate each other’s achievements is so important. Throughout the academic year, we can become very focused on our teaching, research and service. When we have an opportunity, like this evening, to gather and celebrate the prestigious awards many of you have received over the past year – and to bestow some new awards as well – we are reminded of the incredible honor it is to be faculty members at one of the nation’s finest public research universities.

The research university is a special place, and we should never take it for granted. It is truly a safe haven for creativity, and it is a place that actively supports the creation of new knowledge and the pursuit of scientific fact. It is a place where the driven can pursue their intellectual passion with integrity and disseminate their findings without fear of reprisal.

And it is a place where, through research, scholarship, and artistic endeavors, we can make a meaningful impact on every aspect of society.

And what is the one principle that makes our remarkable pursuit of knowledge and our profound expressions of creativity possible? Academic freedom.

Without the freedom to explore, the freedom to invent, the freedom to create, or the freedom to challenge convention, this entire enterprise – the centuries old tradition of the comprehensive university – would come crashing down.

More than 850 years ago, the University of Bologna created its academic charter, the Constitutio Habita. This document legally declared the university a place where research could develop independently, and it shielded visiting foreign scholars from government reprisal for their academic endeavors. These concepts have, over the centuries, enabled some of the greatest advances in the history of humankind.

Today, we work in an environment envied by others around the world. Through the inventiveness of trial and error, the exchange of ideas, peer critique, heated debate, and sometimes, even ridicule, we put ourselves out there, focused on our research and scholarly pursuits – and our insistence that the process of discovery is the process of pursuing the truth.

This environment makes us successful. We may all be extremely bright – even brilliant at times – but without the freedom to experiment, to fail, to persuasively defend our work, we would not learn, and then improve, and eventually succeed.

And, so importantly, without this freedom, we would not be able to pass on to our students the importance of pursuing the truth.

The American Association of University Presidents’ statement on the principles of academic freedom and tenure emphasizes the critical connection between freedom, truth, and the work we do. I quote:

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good… The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition. Academic freedom is essential to these purposes and applies to both teaching and research. Freedom in research is fundamental to the advancement of truth. Academic freedom in its teaching aspect is fundamental for the protection of the rights of the teacher in teaching and of the student to freedom in learning.   

End Quote.

As faculty of the university, freedom to pursue the truth is everything to us. As such, we have both the privilege and the responsibility of protecting it. And, we must meet that challenge, however difficult it may be.

We live in a time when the infinite amount of information available at the tip of our fingers could have a democratizing effect on the dissemination of information.  Indeed, the internet has presented us with the opportunity to explore any topic we wish – examining it from every conceivable perspective.

But too often, people shun the availability of different perspectives – from science, to social issues, to politics. Instead, they exclusively return to places that share their own world view, which in turn, perpetually reinforces their belief system.

This process is not about the left or the right. It happens across the ideological spectrum. The divisiveness this country is experiencing right now emerged in part from these perpetually reinforcing echo chambers and the resulting calcification of opposing world views. If there are no questioning voices to break through these echo chambers, the tools of truth will no longer be needed.  Scientific method and research will become unnecessary: Who needs data or analysis when truth becomes merely a matter of opinion? In this emerging alternative universe, having reliable sources isn’t an issue: Everyone in the chamber believes everyone else. And who needs rigorous standards for expertise? When anyone can make an unfounded assertion and call it ‘fact,’ the hierarchy for bonafide credentials is flattened.

Sadly, the currency of truth has been devalued in our public discourse. And trusted institutions in our society no longer have the public’s confidence.

In this world of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” the research university is one of the last bastions of truth. We must be vigilant in our effort to protect our freedom to pursue it.

It is imperative that the university be a place where the great issues of the day are vigorously debated, whether they be economic, social, philosophical, or political.

And while our university community does not tolerate hate speech – on a free and open campus, no idea should be banned or forbidden.

Freedom of expression and the exploration of new and varied ideas are at the heart of what it means to be on a university campus. If we limit ourselves only to speech with which we agree, we do ourselves – and our students – a great disservice.

To reach full intellectual potential, we must constantly challenge ourselves by exposing ourselves to the richly varied ideas and information our university has to offer. It is up to us then, as individuals, to sort through this cacophony of viewpoints and arrive at our own truths.

Some days, we will celebrate the manifestations of this freedom; other days we may find it repugnant.  It is not our reaction to the various manifestations that matters; it is the ongoing process that must be protected. Only by acknowledging freedom as an absolute do we have any chance of eventually arriving at the truth.

Perhaps more so than any other time in our lives, as faculty of this university, we have a responsibility to remain steadfast in our commitment to pursuing truth.  We must join colleagues on campuses across the country to foster an environment that allows for academic freedom and freedom of expression.

We must work together to ensure we teach our students to think for themselves. To analyze. To productively advocate for what they believe, rather than suppress what they don’t want to hear.

Earlier this semester, Middlebury College students shut down a scheduled public discussion between a faculty member and a controversial guest speaker, with some students later physically attacking both the professor and the speaker.

Following the incident, The New York Times editorial board wrote:

How to begin an editorial about a violent free-speech debacle at Middlebury College in Vermont? Maybe with some words from John Stuart Mill about the importance of giving despised dissenters a chance to speak. “Truth would lose something by their silence,” Mill wrote, even if their views go against the entire world, and the entire world is right.

Noting that Middlebury students did not have a chance to actually challenge the guest on his views, the Times continued, “Thought and persuasion, questions and answers, were eclipsed by intimidation…True ideas need testing by false ones, lest they become mere prejudices and thoughtless slogans.”

On our campus, as researchers, scholars, and teachers it is our responsibility to protect the pursuit of truth.  We must challenge the preconceived notions of our students and society at large through rigorous, fact-based presentation and the dissemination of information based on scholarly processes.  

Suppression leads to darkness and festering. Finding ways to reasonably allow for expression brings in sunlight and leads to the truth.

Last month, at the ribbon cutting for the Old Chapel, I shared a quote from a predecessor of mine, President Hugh Baker, who led this campus, then known as Massachusetts State College from 1932-1946. On the occasion of dedicating the Old Chapel Chime, he said the following on May 1, 1937:

In these years when life seems so full of confusion and uncertainty, when changes in our social, economic and political organizations come so rapidly…there seem to be so many influences that pull us apart …There are so many activities in the world about us that seem to have sinister aspects, whose objectives seem to be to divide us into groups and classes – to build barriers on the basis of race, color, religion, economic status and abilities. It is really a little too easy to become discouraged, if not bitter, over these influences and activities that are seemingly breaking us apart when there is every reason, perhaps greater reasons than ever before, why we should be drawn together that we may meet more effectively the many difficulties and problems of the times….

And he continued:

To me the way out, on a college campus anyway, is to so fill the lives of our young people with influences and activities that have an universal appeal –influences and activities that will make us use a common language, that will let us speak with the same heart and soul impulses.

End quote.

This evening, eighty years almost to the day since President Baker spoke those words, and more than 850 years after the Constitutio Habita – we celebrate the accomplishments of our colleagues, and we reflect on our role as faculty at one of the world’s leading public research universities. I am privileged to call all of you colleagues, and I ask that we work together – in research, scholarship, and teaching – to defend academic freedom in all its forms. We must not be swayed by the challenges we encounter in that defense – and we must make clear that we value truth above all else.

In doing so, we will play our own small part in improving the human condition through advances in science and technology, lifting the human spirit through the arts and humanities, and fostering public discourse that is governed by reason.

Thank you. And once again, congratulations to those colleagues whose accomplishments we celebrate this evening.

GO UMASS!