Bruce's Blog

Nov. 15, 2011

Why did you decide to ban Liberty University's School of Law from participating in Western's Law School Information Fair?

Short answer would be: "I did not, you who are the university did so decide – in the policies previously established."

What do I mean by that? Really just this: my job is never to impose my own preferences on decisions about such matters. Nor is my job to be swayed by however many emails, petitions, letters, and calls I may get on a pending decision.

My job as Western's president, serving you, is to make sure we are very clear on what we, together, have established as the university's policies and then to adhere to them.

Here, the decision was straightforward: our policies prohibit illegal discrimination in operation of all university programs and activities; Liberty University's School of Law states explicitly that they discriminate in employment and admissions on the basis of homosexual conduct; and we formed the view that including Liberty would cause Western to violate its own policies.

Looks pretty straightforward. And, it is as far as following university policy is concerned.

But, we also must follow the law and, here, the questions are more complicated. Western's policy is backed by provisions and directions set in Washington law and an Executive Order. Liberty University's right to discrimination is, just as clearly, protected in case law. When those come into conflict, what should prevail?

We cannot wait on the courts to settle a matter we must decide upon today. For Western, we decided that our university policies take precedence.

So, there is the background. I wanted you to have that. But, I use these blogs for other purposes: to explore questions that may take us – me included – outside of comfort zones. And, to get personal, as well – to try to share a bit about me and my thinking. It's no better than anybody else's thinking, but the title I carry can create a gulf and you deserve to be able to get behind the title and know me at other than formal levels. So, in the spirit of "Bruce's Blog," here goes.

When it comes to protecting Western as a place for the civil yet passionate consideration of controversial subjects, I am pretty much an absolutist. In an earlier blog on the topic, I gave my reasons in support of that position, including pointing out four or five areas where I think we potentially fall short.

When it comes to the role of a university worthy of the name, there is likely no more important matter than that addressed in the earlier blog: how we protect unfettered pursuit of truths, no matter how controversial. The Liberty University matter caused me to further ponder the topic.

When I say "absolutist," I really am; I think there should be few restrictions on controversial speech. Consider the case many decades ago concerning the right of the American Nazi Party to march through a Jewish neighborhood. They wanted a parade permit. Should they get it?

Absolutely, seems to me. We don't need principles for the easy calls, we need them for the tough calls. This is a tough call, certainly, but my overriding intuition is if I want that First Amendment right available to me when I need it, I better endorse its protection for others.

Now, assuredly, I mean in no way to draw a connection between groups like the American Nazi Party and a respected School of Law fully exercising the religious freedom guaranteed to all. I go to a far extreme only to make the point that, for me, even at such a far extreme, we cannot duck considering our commitments to unfettered speech.

I tend toward the absolute for more pragmatic reasons as well, because I believe that a free "marketplace of ideas" does a pretty good job of sifting those worthy of continued debate from those that aren't. Worst possible approach would be to try to suppress concepts I might abhor, keeping them below the radar where who knows what dangers might develop. And of course, suppressing views not only increases resistance and insularity among those who hold them, it can sometimes raise suspicions that what is being suppressed may be dangerously true rather than dangerously dumb. I sometimes go so far as to wonder: would any effort on my part to suppress that with which I fundamentally disagree constitute a tacit admission of the lack of confidence I have in my own position?

So, not thinking about Liberty University per se, I imagine, hypothetically, an organization that wanted to participate in a university-sponsored event and that had policies and practices that discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation. What is the better approach, what is truer to our commitments as a university, what is "safer" when it comes to protecting our society from the real damage done by homophobia? Is it to ban the participation? Or, is it to bring it into the open, along with countervailing participation, discussion, protest, and dialogue based upon facts and reason?

My initial inclinations would be toward full openness, rigorous dialogue, passionate debate, civil protest. But, I thought on — always a danger for an academic, I suppose. :)

Are my personal tendencies toward free speech absolutism the far too convenient luxury of a member of the privileged majority? How often have I been the intended target of ugly but free speech? Suppose I was a person of Jewish faith living in that neighborhood several decades ago, seeing goose-stepping Jack Boots and Swastikas coming by my front yard. Suppose I was one of Western's many, and much-valued gay and lesbian colleagues and students, seeing recruiters on our campus for a university that explicitly discriminates against homosexual conduct?

Just how privileged am I? Sometimes it is easy to forget. I do not — and this brought tears to my eyes when a gay colleague mentioned the concern he faces every day on our campus — have to worry about who is watching when I give my loved one a kiss in the morning as, after arriving on campus, we then go our separate ways.

A hostile environment is real, ugly, and damaging. It is another and very real limitation on our effectiveness as a place for inquiry and learning.

Here are competing commitments of high priority. Our commitment to be unafraid of the controversial. Our commitment to respect, empathize with, and protect each other.

For me as your president, the answer is simple. To trust you who are the university to define, for Western, what our policies and practices are to be. I believe it important to always question. But, that having been done, my role is then to see that we live up to our established policies. And, that is what has been done in the current case.

And, where am I personally? Your policies put us on the side of protecting against a hostile learning environment. Having now gone through the reasoning just offered, I am with you entirely.



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