Free expression is essential to a university's very purpose. Transformative education, pathbreaking research and the timeless search for truth all require a wide variety of viewpoints, the uninhibited exchange of ideas, the persistent challenging of conventional wisdom, and courageous and vigorous debate.
A university that dutifully transmits canonical knowledge, but is not at the same time alive with diverse perspectives, probing critique and the practice of query and argument, is a university in name only.
At Vanderbilt, we have a long tradition of free expression. At a moment when free expression on college campuses and in American civic life is at risk, we are proud to affirm our commitment to this core principle.
A university's obligation is not to protect students from ideas, but rather to expose them to ideas, and to help make them capable of handling and, hopefully, having ideas.
Vanderbilt's approach to free expression rests on three pillars: open forums, institutional neutrality and civil discourse.
Vanderbilt provides spaces in which issues can be thoroughly explored and discussed without the threat of censorship. They include:
- lecture halls
- residential colleges
- online spaces and more
Institutional neutrality is the commitment our university leaders make to refrain from taking public positions on controversial issues unless the issue is materially related to the core mission and functioning of the university. Institutional neutrality does not obligate a university's students and faculty to remain silent-rather, its aim is to allow the greatest possible space for student and faculty voices.
The practice of institutional neutrality is an acknowledgment by Vanderbilt's leaders that the role of a university's administration is to encourage debates, not settle them.
Civil discourse is our practice of engaging in conversation and debate in a constructive manner that demonstrates respect for those on the other side of an issue. In our conversations, as in all things at Vanderbilt, we support and challenge one another. We always remember that we are members of one community dedicated to the same purpose and grounded in the same values.
Civil discourse includes the discussions in Vanderbilt's classrooms, labs, lecture halls and common spaces; it is at the very heart of education, scholarship, research and innovation. It is also essential for pluralistic, democratic government and for navigating life.
Civil discourse doesn't require that everyone agree; it allows for a variety of viewpoints and for vigorous disagreement and debate. But it does ask participants to listen closely to one another and seriously consider whether an opposing view might have value even if we disagree. It's ultimately as concerned with finding common ground as it is with winning arguments.
Until recently, civil discourse was an integral part of higher education and government in the U.S. and elsewhere. But political polarization has made our discourse less civil, and in some cases has stopped it altogether. Dialogue Vanderbilt seeks to rebuild the culture of civil discourse while teaching the leaders of tomorrow how to practice and model it long after they graduate.
The academy might be the last, best place where American citizens can learn to coexist, converse and cooperate with people whose views differ from their own.