“Our first responsibility is educational”: Reflections on UVA President Sullivan’s Chronicle Interview

Teresa A. Sullivan, president of the University of Virginia, recently gave an insightful interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education regarding free speech on campus and administrative concerns about what lies in store for the upcoming academic year.

Sullivan’s tenure has been rocked by many prominent challenges during her seven year tenure, making UVA a kind of synecdoche for the travails besetting higher education in America. As the Chronicle interviewers relate, “Ms. Sullivan has been in office for seven years, and her tenure can be read as a laundry list of the sternest challenges buffeting college leaders during that time — the push to embrace online courses, the increasingly corporate mind-set of boards, concerns over the racial climate on and around campuses, and the fight over how best to prevent campus sexual assault.”

Sullivan has announced her plans to retire in 2018, so her words represent a thoughtful reflection on her tenure and the future of higher education. Her thoughts on free speech are of special interest to us at the Open Inquiry Project. The free speech issue has taken on special intensity at UVA recently as the university wrestles with the decision of the local Charlottesville City Council to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee in a city park—the issue is now being litigated in the courts—and the plan of a Ku Klux Klan outfit to hold a rally in the city near the university.

In the interview, Sullivan is clear about two things. First, that the Klan’s position on race is immoral and condemnable. Second, that free speech is inextricably linked to the top priority of the university. A college president appropriately acknowledges racial morality and sensitivity, but must protect constitutionally protected speech. Consider the following exchange:

Q: What is the role of the university as a central player in the free-speech debate? How does the university fit into the picture?

A: Well, our first responsibility is educational. Some current studies that have come out indicate that this generation of college students doesn’t really understand or agree with free speech as it’s been interpreted by the Supreme Court. And so making it clear what free speech is and is not, I think, is part of what our job is.

And that also applies to things like the Klan rally. The Klan has the right to rally. We might not agree with what they say. We can publicly disagree with what they have to say. But they do have the right to be there and to say it. By the same point of view, I think our students have the right to hear different viewpoints. And they don’t have to agree with those viewpoints. But they have the right to hear about it.

I think our educational role here is really primary, and supersedes everything else. We have had our own free-speech issues here in the past. And I’ve tried to see to it every time that the university comes down on the side of free speech. We do have a green-light rating from FIRE, which is still pretty rare among American universities.

This insight is crucial for at least two reasons that have not received sufficient attention in the free speech debates. First is the importance of educating students, administrators, and, yes, faculty about fundamental free speech principles and law. In my long experience dealing with free speech pedagogy and politics, I have found that the lack of knowledge regarding principles and relevant law is deeply implicated in much student and administrative support of improper censorship. Providing and disseminating such knowledge through teaching and outreach on campus often causes would-be censors and disrupters to think twice and to give free speech much more credence than they previously gave it. In many cases, I have seen it change peoples’ minds. This process supports that fundamental faith of education, which is that knowledge leads to enlightenment.

Second, and equally important, is establishing the right priorities in order to decide properly when values clash. When properly protected speech is challenged by calls for “social justice” or the usually contrived claim that some speech constitutes “violence,” free speech can prevail in the face of pressure only if campus leaders have their priorities right and possess the courage and conviction to make the priorities stick. Justice Holmes famously wrote in U.S. v. Schwimmer (1929), “if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” One should add a corollary: free speech matters most when it comes under pressure. And in order to do the right thing, one must possess both the requisite knowledge and courage.

As Sullivan averred, the “our first responsibility is educational,” and free speech is essential to furthering this responsibility. Each institution exists for a particular reason, and is given certain privileges, such as relative autonomy and self-governance, in return for fulfilling its distinctive mission. The military exists to protect national security through the use or threat of authorized force. Courts exist to adjudicate cases and support legal justice under the law. Higher education exists to educate and to pursue the truth through academic and intellectual freedom—to instill and support what we call the “intellectual virtues.”

If higher education forsakes this primary and distinctive purpose, it betrays its end of the social contract it has entered with society, and opens the door to outside intervention.

And it betrays its own identity and integrity. José Ortega y Gasset wrote in Mission of the University that the university must be open to controversies and issues that pervade the world around it. But it must do so on its own terms, based on its own distinctive priorities, which elevate the intellectual virtues: “The original sin stems from the pretension to be other than one’s true self. It is our privilege to be whatever we wish; but it is vicious to pretend to be what we are not, to delude ourselves by growing habituated to a radically false idea of what we are. When the habitual behavior of a man or an institution is false, the next step is complete demoralization.”

President Sullivan’s words and actions point to a way to crawl out of the demoralized state higher education presently finds itself in.