Frederick M. Lawrence, CEO of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, held a lecture Tuesday on free expression at college campuses in East Hall at the University of Michigan. Lawrence is one of the nation’s leading experts on civil rights, free expression and bias crimes. He believes universities should clearly outline policies, regarding free expression, academic freedom, and free inquiry, asserting it is impossible to separate speech from conduct.
In his lecture, Lawrence said what he believed to be the three principles of “vigorous disagreement,” for productive, bipartisan conversation. He said it was important for opposing sides to disagree with each other without delegitimizing their arguments. He said he felt these principles were essential for maintaining stable discourse on college campuses.
“One of the reasons that I end with specific principles of what I call ‘vigorous disagreement’ is because I think there actually is a takeaway of how we might build difficult conversations on campus,” Lawrence said. “One of the purposes of having a college campus is to have difficult conversations, that’s okay –– to actually give some principles (for free speech), so I think to me, it’s not just an abstract thought, it’s designed to actually give some descriptive ideas.”
Lawrence weighed in on the recent controversy regarding Prof. John Cheney-Lippold’s refusal to write a letter of recommendation for a student who was planning to study in Israel, saying he felt that fell in the realm of professional responsibility.
“Faculty write letters of recommendation for students,” Lawrence said. “It’s one of the things we do and we do that based on the merits of the student, not based on any particular places (of study).”
Lawrence wasn’t the only person who had shared his views on the Cheney-Lippold scandal. LSA senior Noah Cutler also said he disagreed with Cheney-Lippold’s decision.
“Even on that (the letter) it’s hard to say,” Cutler said. “I have spent the summer in Israel, I have friends there, so like personally I think it’s a double standard. It’s the role of the professor to support their students in what they’re doing, regardless of (where).”
As a whole, Cutler said he felt the lecture was an interesting experience, and he learned more about the issue of free expression. While he said he largely agreed with Lawrence, he said he still felt learning background information was nice.
“A lot of the history I didn’t really know anything about,” Cutler said. “In terms of my thoughts changing, I generally agreed with him, at least on the idea of vigorous disagreement –– that I fully agree with.”
David Burkam, a lecturer in the Residential College and head of the University’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter, helped organize the event. He felt the lecture gave people a lot to think about, and could be the start of a new approach going forward.
“I hope that speakers like the one we had today are both more common and more frequent and are asked back,” Burkam said. “My only disappointment today is that we weren’t at Crisler Arena with 5,000 people there. I think people are at a loss to know what to do, what to say. And Fred certainly made it clear the solution won’t be easy or effortless, I think he gave us all thoughts to immediately rethink what we say and what we do, and what we ask of each other.”