Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath

Insights from Saint John's University President Michael Hemesath/

Education, Free Speech and Benedictine Values

The Constitution of the United States, U.S. Archives

Education in general and higher education in particular are based on the belief in academic freedom.  Students, faculty and researchers must be free to ask questions and pursue inquiries where their curiosities and imaginations take them.  They must be able to question the received wisdom and current understandings within their disciplines and to create new disciplines.  Without this freedom, the sun would still revolve around the Earth, Darwin would be unknown, philosophy might well be purely Aristotelian and whole disciplines, like Gender Studies, would not exist.

New knowledge and understandings do not come without pain.  Sacred cows are gored, strongly-held beliefs are challenged and whole world views are upended.  If colleges and universities do their jobs well, every student will experience some of this intellectual vertigo.  They will feel unsettled as their beliefs are stretched, tested, challenged and sometimes found wanting.  Education should be uncomfortable or it does not deserve the name.

But at the same time academic freedom is causing discomfort, it is moving forward the boundaries of human knowledge within disciplines and for societies, and it is preparing students for a lifetime of learning in an ever-changing world.

The game is worth the candle.

Freedom of speech is the other side of the academic freedom coin.  The ability to express ideas, thoughts and opinions obviously extends to settings well beyond the academy and our Founding Fathers felt the exercise of free speech to be important enough to put it into the First Amendment of the Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The ability to bring new or unpopular ideas into the national conversation without fear of government intervention (or worse) has had a salutary effect on political and policy discourse throughout our history.  Free speech played an important role in ending slavery, bringing about the revolution in women’s rights, civil rights and gay rights, among other policy changes that have moved us toward a more just society.

Classroom chairsYet free speech brings even more challenges in its exercise than academic freedom.  The protocols of the academy, including but not limited to the scientific method, provide some generally accepted guidelines for the exercise of academic freedom.

The exercise of free speech is much less circumscribed.  The Supreme Court has, appropriately, been very hesitant to limit the exercise of free speech.  As soon as one starts drawing lines, the philosophy and purpose of free speech start to erode.  Who gets to draw the lines?  Those in power?  How does that affect the functioning of the marketplace of ideas?  How do the politically or socially marginalized get to influence society’s political and social choices?

But with few legal limitations on speech, those expressing their views can be extreme, personal and even hateful.  (There is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment.)  One simply has to look at political discourse today to see these extremes in print and electronic media.  Social media has exacerbated these issues as anyone with an internet connection can join the public conversation, often with the cover of anonymity.

Yet again, many (not all, surely) would argue the benefits of constitutionally protected free speech outweigh the costs.  As Voltaire may or may not have said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

So, what are we at educational institutions to make of all this as we pursue our missions? Interestingly, the responses are potentially different at public and private institutions.  What the First Amendment provides is protection from government imposed restrictions on speech: Congress shall make no law…  So the University of Minnesota, as a public institution is bound by the First Amendment.  As the ACLU website notes:

Many universities, under pressure to respond to the concerns of those who are the objects of hate, have adopted codes or policies prohibiting speech that offends any group based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation.

That’s the wrong response, well-meaning or not. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution.

The legal constraints that pertain to free speech for private institutions like Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict are less binding, as we are not publicly funded.  We have the ability to restrict the speech of members of our private community, but the ACLU is very clear on its recommendation for private institutions:

The ACLU believes that all campuses should adhere to First Amendment principles because academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society.

ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser stated, in a speech at the City College of New York: “There is no clash between the constitutional right of free speech and equality. Both are crucial to society. Universities ought to stop restricting speech and start teaching.”

This advice can be hard for some to accept.  It requires one to listen to not only speech we disagree with but speech that might be hateful and hurtful.  It can require Holocaust survivors to listen to speech from neo-Nazis, as occurred in a famous 1979 case in Skokie, Illinois, but as the ACLU argues:

Free speech rights are indivisible. Restricting the speech of one group or individual jeopardizes everyone’s rights because the same laws or regulations used to silence bigots can be used to silence you. Conversely, laws that defend free speech for bigots can be used to defend the rights of civil rights workers, anti-war protesters, lesbian and gay activists and others fighting for justice.

As private institutions, Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict have options that can balance free speech with civility in ways that other private and public institutions may not.  We have our 1500-year-old Benedictine Catholic tradition to turn to for guidance.  We can both strongly support academic freedom and its public counterpart, freedom of speech, by encouraging our community to exercise speech rights in ways that are consistent with our Benedictine values.

Even if the First Amendment allows for extremes in the exercise of this constitutionally protected right, our Benedictine values remind us that respect for individuals, moderation and our commitments to the community call us to the harder work of civil and respectful free speech.

I’d suggest that there are three commitments we might make to each other in this Benedictine educational community as we strive to balance the important goals of encouraging the open and vigorous exchange of ideas at the same time we seek to build a respectful, civil community:

  1. Personal reflection: Ideally, we would all commit to thinking through our own opinions and beliefs thoroughly and carefully.  We wouldn’t espouse unexamined ideas, or simply repeat what we hear from others or speak when we are not capable of being coherent.  We should know what we believe and be able to articulate why we believe it.  This goal is consistent with living an examined life, which Socrates so eloquently encouraged.
  2. Respect your audience: To be persuasive in making any argument, we need to understand our audience.  Do they want to hear what we have to say?  How will they hear what we are saying?  Might they misinterpret our meaning?  How will their perspective or life experiences affect what they hear us saying?  How can we clearly make our points in the politest and most civil fashion?
  3. “Listen with the ear of your heart” (Prologue of the Rule of Saint Benedict): For true engagement with others, we must be just as willing to listen as we are to speak.  We must commit to working hard to understand where other are coming from and to understand why they have a different perspective than we do.  Finally, we must listen with generosity and be willing to accept that good and thoughtful people might reasonably disagree on matters of importance.

We are communities made up of imperfect individuals, sinners not angels.  But we can be committed to each other and to our communities and can strive to make them better places to live and learn—even as we know and want that learning to be uncomfortable at times.

While I am not certain that Bennies and Johnnies can change the way the rest of the world engages in discourse, I do believe our Benedictine values can guide us toward deep and meaningful interactions where we respectfully learn from each other and are better prepared to interact in the world.  If we can achieve this on our campuses, Bennies and Johnnies might serve as models of civil discourse that the world seems to so desperately need.

By |February 17th, 2017|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

To Speak for Saint John’s—Or Not*

Saint John's University logoRarely does a week go by when I am not asked, as the President of Saint John’s, to commit the University to a position on some public issue beyond Collegeville.  The requests come from alumni, parents, students, faculty and outside organizations.  Each wants the public support of Saint John’s on a particular issue.  These issues typically have two characteristics.  They are complicated and multidimensional—no one asks Saint John’s to support motherhood and apple pie—and they are emotional—the individuals requesting the University’s support typically feel very strongly about the issue, as do those on the other side.  The most recent request was to take a position on President Trump’s executive order on immigration.

As these requests started coming more often, I decided it was important to have some general guidelines and not respond on a case by case basis.  I am in an incredibly privileged position to be able to make, with input from colleagues, such judgments, but it is also a position that I approach with great care.  I very rarely want others to speak for me,  and I assume that is true of others  in the Saint John’s community as well.

I now approach these issues by asking three questions:

The first question I ask is, “Who is Saint John’s?”  As an institution, we represent many constituencies and between monks, employees, students and alumni, Saint John’s is more than 25,000 individuals.  If you include parents and friends, the number approaches 40,000.  We are a very diverse community, which is a tremendous strength, but does not lend itself to homogeneity of thought.

As such, I am very, very hesitant to offer an “institutional” position on any political or social issue because in virtually every case there will be significant disagreement within the community. Institutions don’t normally have opinions or positions, individuals do, and I do not feel it is my right or the University’s right to speak for those individuals on political or social issues where they naturally have their own views and where thoughtful, well-intentioned  Johnnies are likely to disagree.

The second question I consider is about exceptions to this general guideline above.  Does the issue at hand have a direct and significant effect on our students and our educational mission?  For example, there is an ongoing debate around Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a law that, under certain conditions, prevents the deportation of undocumented students who came to the United States as children.  This issue clearly has a direct impact on some of our students, and Saint John’s took a public stance this fall in support of the continuation of DACA.  Because the law has a direct impact on some students and our goal of educating them, I felt it was appropriate to express and defend an institutional position, even as I know there are some in the Saint John’s community who would disagree.

The third question I consider when asked to take a position is that of the educational impact.  Is the issue at hand likely to come up in classrooms, dormitories or other public settings?  If the political or social issue is part of an active public debate and is not directly about educational policy, no institutional position is usually the right choice for the education of our students.

I believe that when Saint John’s takes an institutional position on any issue, we run the real risk of stifling debate on campus and within our community.  If there is the perception that there is an orthodox or “correct” view on an issue, faculty, staff and especially students may feel they are not able to express their disagreement or even debate the merits of differing positions.  This is particularly relevant in the classroom and is a position I have come to from over twenty-five years as a professor.  There can be no more harmful action at an educational institution than to do something that limits, or even risks limiting, the freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas.  That, of course, is what academic freedom and education are all about.

Saint John’s University, as an institution, will certainly help our students in almost any way we can to pursue and achieve their educational dreams, but only in rare circumstances does this include taking a public and official university stance on a matter of policy or politics.  Sometimes no position is truly the best position.

A version of this post will appear in CSB/SJU’s student newspaper, The Record, on February 10, 2017.

By |February 9th, 2017|Categories: Higher Education|16 Comments

Benedictine Hospitality: “Wanna race?”

Three Johnnies smiling at cameraAs one of the public faces of Saint John’s, I get the opportunity to meet many of the guests who come to our campus. Invariably, first time visitors make two observations about Saint John’s. First, that we have a stunningly beautiful campus and second, that everyone is so friendly. One visitor even asked whether we taught our students to identify guests and then to hold doors open and say hi to them!

The first comment is not so surprising. The monks chose brilliantly when they decided that the woods and prairie around Lake Sagatagan would be home to the Abbey and University. The second compliment is perhaps a little more surprising since many of our campus visitors are from Minnesota, a state that has a well-deserved reputation for nice and polite people.

But after so many of these conversations, I have become convinced that our Benedictine hospitality and sense of community does set us apart, even for Minnesotans. What is particularly striking is that this behavior just becomes second nature for faculty, staff and students. The latter group pick up on the social ethos quickly and make it their own, as the encounter below suggests.

Sarah Gainey, the Environmental Education Coordinator at Saint John’s Outdoor University, recently wrote the following to football Coach Gary Fasching, and I am using it here with her permission:

I work at Saint John’s Outdoor University coordinating outdoor field trips for visiting preK-12th graders from the surrounding area. We normally hold our field trips outdoors in the Abbey Arboretum, but because a lack of snow this week, I was holding indoor field trips for 5th graders in the McNeely Spectrum. I would like to share with you an amazing interaction I witnessed last Thursday between members of your football team and a 5th grade class visiting Saint John’s.

The class arrived early to eat lunch before our field trip. After they ate, they were allowed to run around the track, but were instructed to leave anyone alone who was in there working out, which included 3 members of the football team doing conditioning drills. As a few of the 5th graders crossed the track in front of the football players, one young man said to them, ‘Hi there! Wanna race?’ The wide-eyed look of excitement on the boys’ face was priceless and they responded, ‘We aren’t allowed to.’ I quickly intervened and said, ‘Go ask your teacher if it is okay.’

A few moments later, the entire 5th grade class was lined up and ready to race the 3 football players. After a ‘ready set go’ everyone ran as hard as they could and the football players beat all the 5th graders. It wasn’t how the race ended that was memorable, but instead the way the players treated the students that is going to be remembered by every student, teacher, and Outdoor U staff member that witnessed the interaction.

These were kids from a school in St Cloud with a high poverty rate and who have to deal with a whole host of issues no one that age should have to worry about. My main objective is to instill in these and all the kids who come to Saint John’s for field trips a love of science and the natural world. But often times the field trip ends up being more about life, having a positive exposure to a college campus and college students, and about just being a good human being. Your football players helped me achieve that second objective probably without even thinking about it. They were just being kind and welcoming to a group of kids who will remember that day for a long time.

I didn’t get the players’ names but I did shake their hands and thanked them for what they did. And I wanted to thank you for having those kind people on your team. Those kids might not remember what I tried to teach them about science that day, but they will remember how they were treated by people at Saint John’s.

SJU Football Player

Photo: Richard Larkin McLay ’17

As Sarah notes, this simple, and mostly likely, reflexive kindness on the part of these three Johnnies may well have an impact that  reaches far beyond what the young men might ever imagine.

One of the biggest challenges our country faces in the years ahead it to address the achievement gap between students of color and majority students, a gap that is significantly larger for boys than girls. To take full advantage of the talents of this generation of young people, they will need post-secondary education, and the best way to make that happen is to instill in these children an assumption, at an early age, that college is not only a possible option but that it is an assumed option for most of them.

For relatively underprivileged elementary school children to come to a college campus and discover that people are nice to them, that college students are friendly and approachable, and that you have fun hanging out with them is a tremendous step in the right direction.

I am glad that Sarah did not get the name of the young men involved. Pick your favorite three Johnnies–it was them.

By |January 31st, 2017|Categories: Higher Education, Kudos|1 Comment