Provost's Remarks to Faculty Senate

March 22, 2024

As we return from spring break, I wanted to share some thoughts about the importance of free expression, academic freedom, and their centrality to the life of the University. We find ourselves in a complex moment: approaching a national election in a highly divided polity, accompanied by ongoing international conflicts, and at a challenging time in higher education in which those values have increasingly come under question. With that in mind, I want to express a recognition; an affirmation; a request; and some reflections on how we can collectively navigate this complex time in pursuit of our common principles and ideals.

I am deeply concerned by reports that a number of our colleagues have been receiving hostile email messages or have been targets of online vitriol. Harassment of our faculty, students, and staff is unacceptable, and no one should have to experience it. The University administration stands ready to assist you to do everything we can to ensure our faculty’s safety and ability to pursue their teaching and scholarship, free of harassment, and consistent with our parallel commitments as a public university to the protections of free speech—including constitutionally-protected hateful speech—on which an open, free, and contentious democracy depends.

It is a tragedy of our times that digital media have amplified hateful speech. When that speech crosses into harassment, we will do everything we can to support you, acknowledging the limits of what we can effectively promise in a media-saturated world involving speakers over whom we have no or limited institutional or legal authority. As a university, we will fight harassment. We cannot, though, seek to close protected speech. That is hard to live, but I believe it is the tough and worthwhile cost and virtue of our democracy. I will return to this. First, though, the word of affirmation.

Free speech and academic freedom are bedrock values of the University. As a public university, we are bound and protected by the First Amendment protections of the U.S. Constitution. We have recently articulated what that means through the University’s Statement on Free Expression and Free Inquiry adopted by the Board of Visitors in June 2021 and affirmed by the Faculty Senate in April 2022. That statement rightly observes that the “commitment to free expression and free inquiry … underpins every part of the university’s mission.” We will not waver from that commitment. The Constitution also guarantees faculty and other employees robust free speech rights as private citizens. That includes the right to criticize: the right to social and political criticism, criticism of the university administration, criticism coming from across your convictions. Employ those rights as your conscience leads and the Constitution supports. They are core to our democratic life together.

At the same time, it is important to remember that all government employees—including public university faculty—have an obligation to ensure that their private views are not mistaken for the views of their employer. As the University policy on Faculty Political Activity indicates: “The political positions assumed by members of the faculty are personal ones, and faculty members must ensure that they do not necessarily, nor even inferentially, imply that such positions are endorsed by the University.”

Parallel to the commitment to free speech is our commitment to academic freedom. Free speech rights are guaranteed by the Constitution. Academic freedom is a defining ethic of the University, reflecting a professional compact we share. (Relevant documents include sections 3:1 and 3:2 of the UVA Faculty Handbook.) Academic freedom always matters. It matters the most when topics are controversial or sensitive. This is not to say that academic work is immune from criticism—to the contrary, a major purpose of academic freedom is to expose ideas to testing and scrutiny. But the advancement of knowledge comes about through free inquiry, not censorship. The University is committed to protecting the academic freedom of our faculty to pursue research and teach courses on sensitive and controversial topics and to follow the evidence and truth wherever they lead, according to the standards of your disciplines, across all your areas of expertise. We will not waver from that.

Importantly, the right to free speech and academic freedom are related but not identical, and here I would like to offer some counsel on how best I understand that connection. As I understand it, the key dynamic at play in the relationship between faculty members’ constitutionally-protected right to free expression as private individuals and our institutional commitment to academic freedom is that in our roles as faculty, or as other instructors (including graduate instructors), we have a corresponding obligation to protect the free speech rights of our students in any formal academic situation in which we are addressing them not as fellow private individuals but through our designated institutional capacity and authority over them. In those roles as educators, faculty (and all instructors) play a distinctive role in promoting free inquiry. As the AAUP Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students indicates: “The professor in the classroom and conference should encourage free discussion, inquiry, and expression.” More simply, we occupy a special position with regard to the students we teach or supervise, both “to ensure that the evaluation of students is conducted fairly and without any perception of favoritism or bias” (as expressed by the UVA Faculty Conflict of Interest Policy) and to safeguard our students’ First Amendment rights to their own personal viewpoints and expression. As the AAUP “Joint Statement” aptly notes, “Freedom to teach and freedom to learn are inseparable facets of academic freedom.”

More simply still, the mutual exercise of academic freedom and free speech rights respects the freedom of others. In our special relation with our students, the exercise of those mutual rights and freedoms flows from what I know you and all our faculty are committed to—the open give-and-take of the classroom and educational arena; the invitation to informed argument, study, reading, discussion, conversation, and debate on which the life of the University depends.

Let me close with a request and a reflection. The request is quite simple. Keep that commitment going. You liven and sustain the University by it. Thank you for that democracy-invigorating work. The reflection is inspired by a question posed by the South African historian Premesh Lalu: “What is the university for?” I have been thinking about that question for some time. It goes to the heart of our work together. What is university for? Many things: the advance of knowledge and the transformation of our students’ lives are key among them. Here, from my perspective, are a few more.

As a university grounded in the aspirational ideals of the Declaration of Independence, I believe that we are for constantly expanding a democratic and declaration “we”—a “we” held together by the pursuit of truth. I believe that we are for the constant expansion of inclusion; for being ever more diverse in who we are: across all divides of background, race, nationality, sexuality, disability, gender, religion, political perspective, and income.

In our educational mission, I believe that we are for equipping our students with the habits of mind, archives of knowledge, and skills of thought they need to navigate a social world changing at incredible pace: a world becoming ever more local and global, ever more in-person and virtual across the greatest complexities of our times.

But I also believe that we are for more than skills. Too often universities rest their purpose on that alone. I believe that we are for more: that we are for asking ourselves and our students to join together in addressing and debating deep value questions. What is a democracy? What are the sources of hatred and of violence? What does it mean to share one planetary future together?

As a public university I believe that we are for the idea of the public good: for the proposition that a healthy, democratic society must have public goods, not only private goods; for the conviction that knowledge, the advance of knowledge, and access to knowledge are among the greatest of all public goods. And I believe that our research, scholarship, clinical care, arts-making, and all our acts of discovery are key to advancing that public good.

Lastly, as a community dedicated to the radical freedom of thought, I firmly believe that we are for the conviction that the power of the university springs from the free and unintimidated power of reason, poetry, science, evidence, and argument; the power of persuading and being persuaded; of disagreeing with and listening to one another across the intensity of our differences. I believe that this is key to the living democratic power of the university: that we will debate; that we will seek to persuade and allow ourselves to be persuaded by one another; respecting and delighting in our mutual freedom to do the same.

These, among other things, are what I believe the university is for. Enduringly, and as we sustain our scholarly, clinical, creative, and educational mission over the course of this year and the time to come.

As we do so, I want to thank you for your dedication to our work together as sharers and shapers of this most astonishing democratic thing: a public university. Thank you.