November 2017
Saint John's President Michael Hemesath

Colleges across the country have been faced with a new challenge — the issue of free speech on campus. How do colleges ensure the safety of students while allowing deep, sometimes difficult, conversations to happen? Saint John’s University President Dr. Michael Hemesath shared his thoughts on free speech.

Why is free speech important on college campuses?

“Free speech is foundational for an educational institution. Higher education is all about the free exchange of ideas in search of truth. The notion that we should limit that exploration in any way cuts to the very core of who we are as institutions. We should be constantly testing the notion of what is true, and we especially need to test it in the academy among professional academics. But at least as importantly, we have millions of young students entering our institutions every year who need to be introduced to critical thinking skills and ways to exchange opposing ideas in a civil, respectful, and engaging manner.”

How should free speech and safety be balanced on college campuses?

“Students who are coming onto college campuses to participate in learning through the free exchange of ideas need to be ready to be uncomfortable. College is not an intellectually safe space. It’s a space where you should feel intellectually uncomfortable and intellectually challenged. But at the same time, as academic professionals, we absolutely need to provide a physically safe space in which these potentially uncomfortable intellectual exchanges can occur.”

Have you felt this tension on your campus?

“Yes, I have felt it on campus at times. These tensions sometimes come up outside of thoughtful discussions when it is hard to engage civilly and respectfully. We must not limit the ideas people might express, but we do hope discussions can take place in a civil manner. We need to encourage students to think about how their ideas will be heard by the audience they are trying to engage. If they truly want to have civil discourse around a specific topic, they need to be thoughtful about how, when and where they present their ideas.”

What points are often missed in this discussion?

“Public support for higher education has weakened in the past decade, and this is in part because of these issues of free speech. We can name institutions across the country, like the University of Missouri, Middlebury and Berkeley, who have had free speech issues on campus. Luckily we haven’t had this happen in such dramatic ways in Minnesota, but we still have a continued responsibility to protect free inquiry and the search for truth. The public looks to the academy to be a source of testing new ideas and challenging old assumptions. If that doesn’t exist in the academy, where will it exist? We have a responsibility to the public to protect free speech and academic freedom.”

How has the nature of free speech on campus changed over time?

“The external political environment over the past decade has become more contentious, and this change has made it harder to have civil discussion about certain issues. Individuals on both sides of the political divide seem more likely to be interested in making a harsh political point than in the past. There seems to be more talking within groups than talking across groups, and social media is certainly not helping encourage civility. This is why higher education’s mission to encourage and protect the free exchange of ideas and free speech is especially important.”