Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Guest Speakers

For the students of Claremont McKenna

A good college will often bring in guest speakers to enrich the conversation among students and faculty. The apparently growing phenomenon of students protesting guests with the intent of preventing them from speaking suggests that colleges need to develop a culture, and perhaps a set of policies, that guides decisions about controversial speakers and governs reactions to those decisions. Here are my thoughts on the matter.

First, there should be a limited pool of resources to draw on to host guests. That is, invitations should be considered on the basis of the value of the speaker, measured against the cost of hosting them. I'm here talking about the cost of travel and accommodation, as well as any speaking fee. All of these will vary from speaker to speaker. Some speakers demand, or simply deserve, not just a high speaking fee but first class travel and lodgings. At the end of the day, it is the president of the college (working through whatever deputies and committees) that authorizes the expense. All guests of the college, therefore, are guests of the president.

Now, I believe that faculty and students should have channels through which to propose invitations. Indeed, academic departments should have some part of the guest speaker budget that they are free to do with as they please. Likewise, some funds should be allocated to let the students themselves invite speakers. The best way to do this is to let student organizations apply for funding to invite speakers. The important thing is that even these guests, since they are a paid for by the college, are guests of the college, not just he department or student group that. Finally, students groups and departments who raise their own funds would still need campus facilities (a lecture hall) to hold the event. These should be provided free of charge and, again, approval means that the guest speaker is a guest of the college, which is to say, of the president of the college.

That is, while all guest speakers are in practice invited by members of the college of community, the invitation is in principle extended by the president of the college. This is the principle that I would put at the center of any controversies about an invited speaker.

This means, first, that "free speech" is really about the right of the community to hear views that interest them. Once an invitation has been extended, it must be assumed that some members of the community want to hear the speaker's views. The speaker did not have some pre-given right to speak at the college. The speaker is there, "at the pleasure" of the president, who represents the community.

This, in turn, suggests that any protest should be directed, not against the speaker, but against the president who approved the request and extended the invitation. It's the president's judgment that is in question, not the speaker's right to speak. Also, any disruption is a violation of the campus rules of decorum, according to which any sanctioned activity (whether a class, a sports match, or a guest lecture) must be allowed to developed under the rules appropriate to it. Students who violate these rules do so at the risk of being disciplined and ultimately of being expelled. That is, they would have to answer to the president of the college.

Finally, the president would always owe an apology to an invited speaker whose event was disrupted. Even a "peaceful" protest should embarrass the president, especially if it used the sort of strong denunciations in its rhetoric that many protests these days deploy. Once the invitation has been extended on behalf of the campus, respectful, articulate disagreement should be not only allowed but encouraged. But at no point should the speaker reasonably feel unwelcome, let alone unsafe. The very need for police protection from students calls into the question the whole culture of a campus.*

I believe that if this attitude was taken and enforced with respect to campus speakers, we would not see the sort of protests we are seeing today. In fact, I presume that this is the attitude that is preserving the good name of many colleges as we speak. We don't hear enough about them. The good example is so much less newsworthy.

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*Some speakers require protection on the best of campuses. Obviously, if the POTUS were invited, the ordinary security precautions would need to be taken. But not out of fear of the general student body—only the disturbed "lone gunman" among them. But this is no different from any other speaking engagement. My point is just that no speaker should feel especially unsafe on the campus I'm envisaging.


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