Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

Of Speech and Consequences

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
January 8, 2023

Higher education is certainty having a moment right now. Earlier this month the president of UPenn resigned after she, along with the presidents of Harvard and MIT, struggled to provide straight answers to questions about antisemitism on their campuses in the wake of the ongoing Hamas-Israeli conflict. Subsequent accusations of plagiarism against Harvard president Claudine Gay continue to dominate the national discourse around the state of higher education in the United States. Media commentators drawing broad conclusions about higher education based on a handful of outlier elite institutions is a pet peeve of mine, but I must admit the state of higher education is just as messy in my own backyard.

Recent headlines regarding the Universities of Wisconsin, the new name of the system overseeing Wisconsin’s 13 public universities, are pretty incredible to read. We have ongoing controversies around the free speech climate on campuses, the causes of the massive budgetary challenges facing many campuses, the definition and utility of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs, and most absurdly, a university chancellor moonlighting as a porn actor. Fair to say we are fanning the flames of a larger cultural debate about the value of higher education in our society.

No doubt some of the Wisconsin controversies are first and foremost political. The Wisconsin legislature withheld faculty and staff raises until the Board of Regents, the body overseeing the Universities of Wisconsin, agreed to dismantle DEI offices across state campuses. Though the board originally voted down the agreement to trade DEI offices for employee raises, they reversed course a day later. While the press releases from politicians reference indoctrination and stoke fears about DEI, there is little actual evidence that students are being indoctrinated on campus. Nonetheless, this culture war issue remains front and center in our very politically divided state.

Related are the issues of free speech on campus. This past fall I had the privilege of designing and teaching a Public Administration course on free speech. I found the whole experience fascinating. Many students did not have a strong grounding on the legal foundation of free speech, i.e., what was protected and what was not protected. Concepts like prior restraint and judicial review were fun to teach, and illuminating for many. But, the really fascinating discussions were the cultural gray areas.

For example, what does it actually mean for a speaker to be “cancelled” on campus. Is it not inviting them in the first place? Is it disinviting them once a subset of students vocalized their opposition? Is it a protest of the actual speech? There was diversity in the opinions on the topic, but generally students wished for level heads to prevail. By that I mean students hoped speakers would not be invited to campus solely for the sake of stoking outrage, and that protestors would engage in peaceful protest that did not disrupt any actual speech.

We also discussed the differences between legal and social consequences for free expression. Just because you have the right to say or do something does not mean you have a right to be free from the consequences of that speech or action. Returning to that aforementioned university chancellor fired for creating and posting pornography with his wife. His initial response to the firing was to claim that his free speech rights were being violated by the disciplinary action. Certainly, there is legal precedent for adult pornography being protected speech. However, the first amendment does not guarantee an at-will employee their position.

The larger ethical point here, which I think is relevant to any public executive, is that all actions taken by the executive reflect on the organization as a whole. There is a reason city managers do not engage in political activity, for example. I am sure some students, faculty and alumni are fine with the actions of the fired chancellor, while others are not. Part of public leadership is recognizing that your statements and actions, be them in an official or unofficial capacity, reflect on all those who work for you as well as the institution as a whole. As I often jokingly tell my MPA students, the first rule of being in charge is simple: Do not do stupid or embarrassing stuff. 

Here is hoping that 2024 is a year where culture war issues stop distracting from the core mission of higher education. Those of us teaching Public Administration cannot end the culture wars, or keep them out of our institutions. But we can engage seriously with issues of free speech and expression in our courses. I am hopeful such engagement will help us overcome this very strange moment we are all in.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin  Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (4 votes, average: 4.25 out of 5)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *