Aerial view of TAMU

Freedom of Expression — Fostering a Fearless Front at Texas A&M University


September 27, 2016

What do you do when you encounter individuals, groups or guest speakers on campus whose beliefs challenge or even directly oppose your own? What if you are the one who embraces a perspective different from others? Do you contribute to an environment of open dialogue, even when you are challenged or you challenge others? If you haven't yet faced these situations at Texas A&M, you will. And, dare I say, you should!

At its most basic level, this is a university – a term that shares the same etymological root as universe and, as such, we know at our core that all of us – professors, students and staff alike – are best served intellectually and practically when we are immersed in a holistic and educational environment that teaches us things we didn't know, often from a perspective with which we are not familiar. We benefit immensely from challenges to analyze our beliefs through interaction with information and individuals with varying points of view, informed by a range of backgrounds and life experiences. That is fundamental to who we are as a university and, indeed, as a nation and world. Diversity of thought, belief, background and experience informs us, educates us, shapes us and prepares us for the world in which we all live and into which we launch our graduates every year.

In this, the 140th year since the birth of this great university, our core values remain very much intact – respect, excellence, leadership, loyalty, integrity, and selfless service. Let us never lose sight of these precious values when we engage in dialogue, recognizing that a healthy discourse – even disagreement – is invaluable in developing lifelong learning skills such as effective listening, perspective and communication and, perhaps most importantly, critical thinking.

Our faculty, staff and senior leadership work assiduously to foster an environment where intellectual challenge and robust debate are welcome, indeed encouraged. It isn't always comfortable to engage in dynamic debate and challenging discourse, but it is the very essence of a world-class education and one of the most fundamental attributes of a great global society.

These fundamental principles we hold so dear at this university are also the bedrock of our freedom and unique participatory democracy, as memorialized in our very founding documents and reinforced through countless judicial decisions over the years. To help us all better understand those principles and their foundation, a thoughtful White Paper on Freedom of Speech that provides a legal context for protecting the first amendment rights afforded to all of us can be found on the Provost's page of our website.

Of course, there are ways and means of expressing our views that foster, rather than hinder great debate, as well as facilitate smooth operation of our entire university. The Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs has compiled our rules on the university's website at "Expressive Activity." I encourage everyone wishing to express their views on campus to reference those materials to ensure that safety and critical academic functions are not inadvertently compromised or inappropriately disrupted.

Engaging and embracing diversity enables us to better meet the challenges and find the opportunities that our society and world present. Diversity and inclusion are not only a central part of the quest for excellence, but are also essential touchstones for the way Aggies treat each other and, indeed, treat everyone. That respect enhances our capacity to learn from each other and grow and is fundamental to who we are.

We all know, however, that while we are deeply committed to these values – and I am so proud of you all for that – we sometimes fall short and there is always room to do better. We can be proud that our University Diversity Plan, which focuses on accountability, climate and equity, has become a model for universities around the nation. But we cannot become complacent. Results from cyclical student, faculty and staff campus climate surveys make clear that we have even more work to do to hold each other more accountable to create a welcoming campus climate, where everyone feels a sense of belonging for what they bring to our scholarly community.

This will not always be comfortable or easy. The best learning most often occurs when we venture well outside of our comfort zone. Our most basic missions – to teach, to discover, to learn – require the freest and fullest exchange of ideas possible. As a distinguished professor at Yale University once put it, when asked to address this very issue: "The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable…."[1] This is what we must cherish and protect at all costs. We must learn from each other, eschewing labels, and open our minds to even the most difficult conversations, developing and testing hypotheses in the marketplace of ideas.

The role of a university as a marketplace of ideas can continue only as long as those within the university are able to pursue what Oliver Wendell Holmes, renowned United States Supreme Court justice, called the "free trade of ideas." Additionally, he wrote "The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and the truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out."

At Texas A&M, we are neither fearful of this, nor do we apologize for it. Instead, we infuse our marketplace of ideas with a culture of welcome and respect for all. We recognize that we can be provocative without being uncivil, that we can take ideas seriously and assess them without always agreeing with them, and that we all benefit when we interact with and learn from those holding many different perspectives and beliefs, especially those that differ from our own.

As your President, I hope I am always open to that which challenges me and makes me uncomfortable while responding with the core value of respect in all that I do. I hope all of you will join me to integrate the Aggie core values in all circumstances – in times of agreement and in times of disagreement. In this way, we can learn and grow both as individuals and as an institution. Let us foster a fearless front of inquiry and respect in Aggieland.

[1] Woodward, C.V. (1974), The Report of the Committee, pp 5-6

Michael K. Young