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The Office of the President

Messages about free speech on campus

(Friday, September 09, 2016)

Dear Members of the Campus Community:

I write to share news of two upcoming fall events that will be of special interest to students, faculty and staff across campus.

Last spring, you may recall that an event titled, “How the Media Can Sway Votes and Win Elections,” organized by the Office of Student Activities and Union Services, was canceled by the organizers following a robust dialogue among faculty and staff about the decision to bring this debate between a liberal and conservative to campus in the first place. The tone and tenor of some of the criticisms about the legitimacy of the program and in particular, the invited conservative speaker Cliff Kincaid made clear that the event was unlikely to be received by our campus community as a debate addressing media and politics.

Following this decision, I acknowledged the regret and disappointment about the cancellation because as a college campus we must champion the free exchange of ideas, even by those who we may disagree with. I would like to believe that SUNY New Paltz would not fall victim to the disturbing trend at other colleges and universities where speakers are uninvited because members of those campus communities take offense at the guest speaker’s point of view or previous actions. I noted that our campus reaction to this planned debate, which by its nature is an exchange of opposing viewpoints, reinforces the important institutional lesson that we must be mindful and systematic about preparing our campus community for potentially provocative and difficult conversations. We have to provide appropriate framing for these events, as we have for some previous events. Several faculty members did just that, framing the event for their students and others in our community, so that they could make informed decisions about whether to participate and, if they chose to do so, to understand the potential content in advance and be prepared to ask the type of rigorous and challenging questions that we hope are being asked in our classrooms every day. We have an opportunity this fall to do an even better job with this advanced notice and a healthy conversation about these issues prior to these events.

Our goal as educators should include helping our students become enlightened, informed, and engaged citizens who can listen to and hear all views, and we should seize opportunities to model how to listen, learn, and respond with civility. Debate and healthy intellectual exchange inherently demand differing views and positions.

To that end, we tried to demonstrate that SUNY New Paltz remains fully committed to free speech and my office attempted to reschedule the event for the spring. Unfortunately, we were unable to confirm a date that coincided with the speakers’ availability. Near the end of the spring semester, I convened a faculty task force (Glenn Geher, Eugene Heath, Pat Sullivan, Dan Lipson, Lisa Phillips, and Lew Brownstein), who volunteered to explore these issues further and recommend programming for this fall about free speech with the goal of engaging in a thoughtful discussion focused on the value of free speech in our society, where all voices can be heard. The group is also preparing guidance for faculty about framing these events for their students and others in our community so that they are prepared to engage in a civil dialogue with our guest speakers. I thank the task force for its thoughtful time and energy toward this work.

The task force met several times through the summer, considered the events that transpired in the spring, and recommended programming thus far that I have accepted for the fall. When I met with the group, I shared my intention to re-invite Jeff Cohen and Cliff Kincaid to campus for the same debate format as was planned originally and the group concurred with the reasoning behind that decision. This event has been rescheduled for Thursday, October 20, at 7 p.m. in the Student Union Multi-Purpose Room. Jeff Cohen, founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), was unavailable for the fall and will be substituted by Steve Rendall, Cohen’s associate at FAIR. We are committed to rescheduling the event despite past criticisms and I’m pleased that the task force saw the value in bringing the program back to campus. Campus Auxiliary Services funds, not state dollars, will be used to pay for this event.

In advance of the October 20 program, the faculty task force recommended also that we invite a speaker who could better frame the importance of engaging in provocative discussions on college campuses and who shares our value that universities exist for the free exchange of ideas, even those that members of our community might disagree with, perhaps vigorously.

I endorsed the task force’s recommendation to invite Dr. Jonathan Haidt, who accepted our invitation to visit campus on Thursday, September 29, and will give an evening talk at 7 p.m. in LC 100. Dr. Haidt is a social psychologist at NYU’s Stern School of Business, author, researcher, and national commentator who speaks often about the intersection of free speech and potentially difficult conversations on college campuses across the country. We are very fortunate to have secured a speaker with such national prominence, who has given a TED talk, published a prominent Atlantic article and been a featured guest on several television news and commentary programs, to discuss these broader issues impacting colleges and universities throughout the country. Our hope is that Dr. Haidt’s talk may provide students, faculty and staff the opportunity to test and experience some of the ideas they will hear in the Kincaid-Rendall event next month.

We will promote and highlight each of these events in greater detail through subsequent campus announcements.

Thank you for your attention and continued interest in these important issues, and for modeling for our entire community our value and support for free speech at SUNY New Paltz.  

Sincerely,

Donald Christian

President

 


 

(Tuesday, April 12, 2016)

Dear Faculty and Staff,

Last month, I wrote to inform you that we were in the process of re-inviting Jeff Cohen and Cliff Kincaid to SUNY New Paltz to debate the topic of “How the Media Can Sway Votes and Win Elections.” The College offered multiple dates, but unfortunately was unable to confirm a date this spring that coincided with Cohen and Kincaid’s availability. Given the stage of the semester, it is not possible to organize a new event this spring. As I outline below, we want to explore this or a similar debate or discussion in the fall. In the last few weeks, I have been heartened by offers from faculty members to be actively involved in this type of dialogue, and we welcome and call for further interest from others.

This recent experience has reminded us that our goal as educators should include helping our students become enlightened, informed and engaged citizens who can listen to and hear all views. If we don’t prepare our students to engage with differing views while they are in college, then we have not prepared them for the world they are about to enter. We should seize opportunities to model how to listen, learn and respond with civility.

We would like to empower a group of faculty and students to organize a panel discussion about free speech to be held during the coming fall semester, with the goal of engaging in a thoughtful discussion – focused on the value of free speech in our society, where all voices, even those we may disagree with vigorously, can be heard. We have faculty with the expertise, experience, and interest who can model this type of conversation with (and for) our students and the greater campus community. I ask that those faculty who would like to organize this effort and/or serve on the panel to e-mail their formal interest to presidentsoffice@newpaltz.edu no later than Friday, April 22, 2016.

Interim Provost Deen and I will choose participants, asking one faculty member to convene and lead the planning of this event. The group should meet at least once this spring to begin developing a program for the fall semester. This panel might be a free-standing event, or it may be prelude to a debate on media and politics featuring outside speakers (perhaps Cohen-Kincaid – which we are told by the agent would require a new contract and new fees -- or perhaps others). The event(s) should occur before the November elections. We will entertain funding requests for a student-focused program. We will assist in identifying student members of this group.

We recognize and appreciate that the substance of these programs develop organically through the faculty and with student input, and I thank those who are willing to take on this critical endeavor.

Sincerely,

Donald P. Christian
President

 


(Thursday, March 31, 2016)

Dear Members of the Campus Community,

We are in the process of inviting Cohen and Kincaid to SUNY New Paltz for the same debate format as soon as possible. 

By attempting to reschedule this event, we have an opportunity to demonstrate that SUNY New Paltz remains fully committed to free speech.

I am pleased to say that this event has generated robust discussion that highlighted the interest in this event and helped reframe its original purpose -- a debate about media and politics.

I recognize that there are members of our community who will continue to disagree with the decision to bring this event to our campus, however, as I wrote yesterday, universities exist for the free exchange of ideas, even those that some members of our community might disagree with, perhaps vigorously.
 
I call on the campus community to take this opportunity to help frame the event appropriately for our students so that they may engage diverse perspectives and experiences through civil discourse.  Let’s put our best foot forward as a college community.

As soon as we confirm Cohen and Kincaid’s availability, we will announce a date and time. I encourage you to share this information with your students who may be interested in attending.
 

Donald P. Christian
President

 


 

(Wednesday, March 30, 2016)

Dear Members of the Campus Community:

You are aware by now that the event “How the Media Can Sway Votes and Win Elections” has been canceled. I have seen and understand the regret and disappointment at that outcome. I want to take this opportunity to address the campus dialogue around the event. First and foremost, Campus Auxiliary Services funds allocated to Student Activities for a wide variety of programming efforts, not state dollars, were used for this event. Regrettably, the cancellation of the event does not remove a contractual obligation to pay.

I commend the programmers for their thoughtful approach to planning this event, which had the clear goal of intellectual exchange about a current issue that is of immense intellectual and practical interest. I understand that in organizing this event, they consulted with other colleges who had hosted the same debate format program with Jeff Cohen and Cliff Kincaid. The feedback from these campuses was that the event was well received and allowed for the intended political and media discussion. In addition, New Paltz organizers consulted appropriate academic departments in the relevant subject areas to vet the appropriateness of the event. It should not escape our attention that the organizers are not academics defending or advocating for a particular point of view, but were trying to offer a balanced program that would have exposed our students to differing views on a timely topic. The tone and tenor of some of the criticisms about the legitimacy of the event made clear that the event was unlikely to be received by our campus community as a debate addressing media and politics.      

This experience reinforces for us the important institutional lesson to be mindful and systematic about preparing our community for potentially provocative and difficult conversations, and providing appropriate framing for these events, as we have done for some previous events. I applaud that several faculty members, including Anne Roschelle, Eugene Heath, Larry McGlinn, and Rennie Scott-Childress did just that. They framed the event for their students and others in our community, so that they could make informed decisions about whether to participate in the event and, if they chose to do so, to understand the potential content in advance and be prepared to ask the type of rigorous and challenging questions that we hope are being asked in our classrooms every day.

Our goal as educators should include helping our students become enlightened, informed, and engaged citizens who can listen to and hear all views, and we should seize opportunities to model how to listen, learn, and respond with civility. Debate and healthy intellectual exchange inherently demand differing views and positions.

The enduring issues of conflict between free speech and hateful speech challenge our campuses and our society. I condemn hateful speech that threatens people, or has the impact of marginalizing, diminishing, or reducing the promise of any member of our community. At the same time, I know that you share my value that universities exist for the free exchange of ideas, even those that members of our community might disagree with, perhaps vigorously.

Sincerely,

Donald P. Christian
President