A week ago the former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, spoke at Harvard’s commencement ceremonies. His address briefly stirred up the liberal media. Headlines such as: “Michael Bloomberg bashes liberal bias at Harvard commencement address” (The Washington Post), “...Bloomberg slams intolerance by liberals on college campuses...” (The New York Daily News), give a little flavor of the furor. Despite the hoopla his address merits a close read. My version of the headline would have been: “Bloomberg Reminds Harvard Graduates of Fundamental American Ideas and Ideals.” The speech is not long but embodies important principles and examples about the purpose of universities and the American values of freedom and tolerance.
America’s most prestigious university. And, like other great universities, it lies at the heart of the American experiment in democracy.
Their purpose is not only to advance knowledge, but to advance the ideals of our nation. Great universities are places where people of all backgrounds, holding all beliefs, pursuing all questions, can come to study and debate their ideas – freely and openly.
Today, I’d like to talk with you about how important it is for that freedom to exist for everyone, no matter how strongly we may disagree with another’s viewpoint.
Tolerance for other people’s ideas, and the freedom to express your own, are inseparable values at great universities. Joined together, they form a sacred trust that holds the basis of our democratic society.(1)
- There is an idea that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism.
- In the 2012 presidential race, according to Federal Election Commission data, 96 percent of all campaign contributions from Ivy League faculty and employees went to Barack Obama. ... [By the way, Bloomberg supported Obama, which wasn’t often mentioned in the liberal reviews of this talk!] When 96 percent of Ivy League donors prefer one candidate to another, you have to wonder whether students are being exposed to the diversity of views that a great university should offer.
- When tenure was created, it mostly protected liberals whose ideas ran up against conservative norms. Today, if tenure is going to continue to exist, it must also protect conservatives whose ideas run up against liberal norms.
- The role of universities is not to promote an ideology. It is to provide scholars and students with a neutral forum for researching and debating issues – without tipping the scales in one direction, or repressing unpopular views.
- This spring liberals “silenced a voice–and denied an honorary degree” to people deemed politically objectionable who were invited to give commencement addresses at Brandeis, Haverford, Rutgers, and at Swarthmore and Johns Hopkins last year.
- A university’s obligation is not to teach students what to think but to teach students how to think. And that requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudging them, and determining whether the other side might actually make some fair points.
- If university administrations do not defend freedom and tolerance for all students, they will graduate with ears and minds closed and the university will have failed both the student and society.
I’m sure all of today’s graduates have read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.But allow me to read a short passage from it: ‘The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it.’
He continued: ‘If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.’
Mill would have been horrified to learn of university students silencing the opinions of others. He would have been even more horrified that faculty members were often part of the commencement censorship campaigns. [Bold emphasis mine.]
I am bold to declare the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.(2)And he added the following as a revelation from God, binding upon his people:
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge....(3)
3. D&C 121:41-42, 20 March 1839.