On Being Academic

January is always a unique time in our academic cycle. Some graduate students began new quarters and joined new cohorts; many of our undergraduate students have been traveling around the world as part of the intensive study that characterizes "Jan Term."

Over the past weeks, Saint Mary's College has earned new marks of distinction as well. The American Academy for Liberal Education, a nationally-recognized accreditor of liberal arts programs, conferred accreditation on our Integral Program, writing that "The Academy commends the College's Board and administration for maintaining such a unique and nationally important program." Based largely on the efforts of our Social Justice Coordinating Committee and the work of Marshall Welch, we have received the Carnegie Classification on Community Engagement for the ways in which we "address community-identified needs, deepen students' civic and academic learning, enhance community well-being and enrich the scholarship of the institution." In past months, we secured membership in the Council on Graduate Schools, the only national organization in the United States that is dedicated solely to the advancement of graduate education and research. These institutional accolades complement the increasing scholarship and creative activity of our talented faculty across campus.

We have also received considerable attention for our selection of Jan Term speakers. In fact, no single event has ever generated the volume of email that I have received in past days than the upcoming appearance of Professor William (Bill) Ayers. One email is particularly memorable to me. In it, the author asks, have we lost our minds? How dare we think of ourselves as an elite academic institution? Indeed. The reference to "elite" does seem a bit misplaced, as most of our students do not have the privileges suggested by the term. But we are an academic institution, founded in the values and practices of the Christian Brothers and grounded in the liberal arts.

As our president, Brother Ron, has written, the appearance of Mr. Ayers as a guest speaker is congruent with our mission and educational purposes. Some people interpret our invitation as tacit endorsement, despite our clear statement that we do not condone his past actions or sanction his views. A podium is not a pulpit, and guest speakers do not define the identity or direction of our college. If we were to limit our guest speakers to those with whom we agree, we would lose our integrity as an institution of higher learning. Our distinct curriculum, grounded in texts of enduring value and practiced in the vigorous conversations of our seminars, demands that we give voice to all ideas so that they might be examined without prejudgment and regardless of our own distaste. We empower our students to make their own decisions, consistent with their faith and values, about the full range of perspectives and ideas that are part of public discourse. We cannot tell them, "You can think about this idea, but we won't let you listen to or think about that." We cannot treat them as if their faith will crumble if challenged; in fact, many come to learn how a tested faith often results in the reaffirmation of their beliefs and values.

Although Mr. Ayers was invited by faculty to speak about his recent scholarly works on educational reform, his activities in decades past continue to dominate public discourse about him. For some members of our extended community, Mr. Ayers brings back memories of true fear and hatred. His impending presence on campus causes them pain and anger; for them, he has become a symbol of sedition. Before the recent election, most of our undergraduate students would only have known of Mr. Ayers based on passing references in history textbooks, if at all.

Some of our trustees, students, and alumni are looking forward to hearing from this controversial speaker in his own words about his scholarship, unfiltered by popular media and internet bloggers. As one of our alums commented recently, Saint Mary's "is not hurting its reputation, Lasallian tradition or values by letting Ayers speak. … If we have the strength to open our minds and actively participate in the discussion by listening and challenging, then everyone has an opportunity to evaluate Ayers' past/ present comments/ views … Isn't this a core of the Saint Mary's liberal arts education taught to each of us?"

We recognize that as we fulfill our educational mission, some might experience personal angst and feelings of betrayal. We understand that some people will find the presence of Mr. Ayers on campus to be intolerable, and that our adherence to principle has cost us donor support. We understand that other people will choose to come to campus as protesters. We respect these choices and will provide opportunity for those with opposing views to express them in accordance with campus policies and procedures.

We hope that we can exemplify the best of our intellectual and faith traditions in this exchange of ideas. Our mission calls for no less.