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Friday, May 24, 2024
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Letter to the Editor: On protest and academic freedom: embrace UW’s framework of scholarly debate

Editor’s note: Letters to the Editor and open letters reflect the opinions, concerns and views of University of Wisconsin-Madison students and community. As such, the information presented may or may not be accurate. Letters to the Editor and open letters do not reflect the editorial views or opinions of The Daily Cardinal. 

What is happening? How does this work? Who is right, and who is wrong? In its 175 years, our university, the birthplace of the sifting and winnowing and the Wisconsin Idea, has played a foundational role in establishing the framework that has defined the concepts of academic freedom and the benefits of engagement with the world through scholarship and activism. Our framework of norms, policies, and laws ensures that all voices are heard, not just the loudest or the most politically powerful. It is a framework that facilitates seminars, talks, and speeches on our campus on every imaginable topic from every perspective. It is a framework that enables the vetting of novel and, at times, controversial ideas, all essential to the scientific process and advancement of human understanding. It is a framework that helps us navigate an information space that is often populated with clever manipulation, misrepresentations, and honest errors.

It is also a framework compatible with protest while protecting free speech and the flow of ideas. However, when protesters break decorum and laws, they place university leadership and faculty in an awkward spot. If we turn a blind eye to lawlessness, we undermine the framework that protects academic freedom. If, instead, we support enforcement of decorum and laws when facing immobile crowds occupying spaces unlawfully, enforcement likely turns to physical conflict. Neither of these choices will help advance our understanding of the issues of protest.

It’s a choice forced upon the university community by a deliberate challenge to our framework that protects academic freedom. It’s a choice where either path takes us to a place of control by crowds where novelty and the rights of minorities generally don’t fare well. It‘s a choice that places us on the path of conflict instead of humility and understanding.

Now that this difficult choice has been forced upon our community, the faculty, and the administration, what should we do? I can only respond with what I would do. As a parent, legislator, member of the community, or alum, I would hope to have the wisdom to provide the administration, faculty, and university community with the flexibility and time to pull our community together. As a faculty member, when teaching and acting on behalf of the institution, I would strive to set aside my personal beliefs, work to support constructive dialogue and reinforce our framework of academic freedom. I would not support lawlessness.

If I were a protestor, I might question my approach that undermines academic freedom in my quest to be heard. I would advocate for my cause in a manner that supported academic freedom. This means I would take down my tents and comply with the institution’s norms, policies, and laws. If it came to this, in my act of civil disobedience, I would not resist arrest so as not to risk physical harm to others or myself.

If I were a student, I would hope I would have the wisdom to study, seek understanding, and engage in respectful conversations. I would carry myself with an awareness that I am a member of a great university, and that soon, I will join the ranks of one of the most inspiring and thoughtful communities in the world, our alumni.

If I were religious? I would pray. I would pray that those sexually brutalized, raped, maimed, and murdered in Israel on October 7 were back alive and unharmed. I would pray that the innocent Palestinians who were injured and killed in this war were instead alive. I would pray for the hostages to be sent home and then for this war to stop. I would pray that the protesters would realize that protesting our university is of dubious purpose because our university didn’t start this war, and it can’t end it. I would pray that my mind and the minds of others would not fall prey to those who are trying to manipulate us into thinking our university is the enemy. I would pray that the protesters would stop hiding the veracity of their ideas behind tents and lawlessness. I would pray for all members of our community to comply with the norms, policies, and laws that protect the sifting and winnowing of the truth. I would pray that our entire community would join us in our scholarly quest for truth, understanding, and peace.

Jon Eckhardt

Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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