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To the Lafayette Community:

The College’s mission statement calls on Lafayette to provide “an environment that fosters the free exchange of ideas.” Achieving this ideal requires that diverse viewpoints concerning intellectual, political, moral, and legal issues are regularly made available to students.

As I mentioned at the December Faculty Meeting, this spring we will be launching a new lecture series, The Lafayette Symposium, which will offer talks, panel discussions and debates by speakers who follow contrasting approaches, advocate opposing policies, or come from differing ideologies.

The Symposium will explore different conceptions of justice, freedom, individual rights, and communal responsibilities; focus on particular topics around which there are contrasting views, such as the proper size and role of government, the tension between national security and open borders, the importance of family or religion, and free speech; and aim to involve speakers from all serious intellectual and social traditions.  We hope to hold at least two Symposium events each semester.

I am delighted to introduce our first two speakers. Both lectures are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. in Colton Chapel on their respective dates.

  • On Jan. 25 we will welcome University of Pennsylvania Professor Sigal Ben-Porath. She will lecture on the theme of her 2017 book, Free Speech on Campus, in which she “writes about the concept of ‘inclusive freedom,’ in which colleges affirm not only free speech, but also ‘an inclusive environment,’ in which people from all perspectives and groups are respected,” reports Inside Higher Education.
  • On Feb. 8 we will welcome Keith E. Whittington, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University, who will speak on the topic: Why We Should Value Campus Free Speech.” He is the author of the forthcoming book Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, in which he argues that universities must protect and encourage free speech because vigorous free speech is the lifeblood of the university. Without free speech, he writes, a university cannot fulfill its most basic, fundamental, and essential purposes, including fostering freedom of thought, ideological diversity, and tolerance.

Our first two Symposium speakers were selected by Provost Abu Rizvi for their work on the issue of campus free speech specifically. In the months ahead we will convene a group of community members to help us identify topics of interest and speakers to invite to campus.

In another matter related to free speech, we will also be convening discussions on campus that may lead to the formulation of a statement of community values around free speech and inclusivity. While our mission statement and handbooks for faculty and students do address topics such as the free exchange of ideas, academic freedom, and rights and responsibilities, I believe that community dialogue on these issues will be valuable. Please watch for further notices about such conversations.

Lafayette is well positioned to engage in thoughtful discussion of difficult and complex issues. Last spring, I and the other presidents who belong to the Pennsylvania Consortium for the Liberal Arts (PCLA) posted a paper in which we noted that “liberal arts colleges offer a distinctive opportunity to develop a dialogic sensibility that is fundamental to life in a free society.”

We wrote: “The capacity to enter, shape, and hold a ‘conversation’ is the lifeblood of liberal learning and democratic participation alike. Liberal education offers a crucial opportunity for young people to reverse what Sherry Turkle calls ‘the flight from conversation’ in modern society caused by the isolating effects of both ideological groupthink and digital media addiction. Residential liberal arts colleges provide exchanges in classes, mentors’ offices, dining halls, dorms, and public forums––all places where students can cultivate the art of conversation, gradually enlarging their capacities for imaginative, empathetic engagement.”

I look forward to the opportunity to engage these issues together. Best wishes for a good start to the spring semester.

Alison R. Byerly


Categorized in: Presidential News