Letters to the Editor

Professors free to speak out

From time to time, members of our faculty express opinions on these pages, they give talks at local civic clubs and they make remarks at public gatherings of one sort or another. We know this because the university's administration routinely receives calls and letters protesting the written or spoken comments of these professors and questioning why we keep them on our payroll.

The calls and letters are more frequent when the notions of our faculty tend toward the liberal end of the political spectrum. We don't screen anyone in the hiring process for their social or political views, but studies have shown that academicians do tend to be more liberal than the general population.

In situations where our professors are rendering opinions, we only ask two things of them: first, to be intellectually honest in whatever they communicate and, second, to feel free to identify themselves as members of our faculty but to make it clear that they are not speaking as representatives of the institution, unless they have been asked to do so by the administration. Beyond that, they are limited only by their expertise and conscience.

Throughout history, individuals have been punished and martyred for simply speaking or writing what they deemed to be the truth. But we know that the truth makes us free, as noted in the Gospel of John and in other spiritual and philosophical writings. Therefore, since we place a high premium on freedom in America, we need to do all that we can to protect the livelihoods of those whose jobs require them to speak their perceived truth with intellectual honesty. This includes clergy, judges and academicians for the most part. All wear robes, by the way, to de-emphasize personality and to accentuate the role of the office.

Most mainstream clergy have some form of job security after ordination. Judges and justices at the federal level, at least, can only be removed from office for criminal activity. They don't have to be popular with their opinions and rulings, in other words, in order to be re-elected. They have the option to be intellectually honest, even if they don't always avail themselves of the opportunity.

In academia we award tenure or permanence in office after five or six years of probationary status. Tenure does not mean a professor is completely immune from termination; it simply means that a professor cannot be fired for expressing unpopular or provocative opinions.

So, we know that the calls and letters from those who are offended by the opinions of our faculty are a cost of doing business in our line of work. In a culture that values freedom, though, those who teach and conduct research must express their opinions and findings without fear of being fired or sanctioned. That's how new ideas are introduced into the marketplace of public opinion. It is a requirement for social, political, cultural, scientific, technological and even commercial progress. And that's a big part of what we do in higher education - we put new and different ideas out there. Some will ultimately have merit, some won't.

Consequently, we know that there will be negative reactions to some statements from our faculty. And we actually do appreciate the responses, since they indicate that someone cares enough to react. New ideas need to be put forth, even if they make us uncomfortable. Hopefully, we will think these ideas through and craft a response if we disagree with them. Debate and the competition of ideas are crucial to maintaining freedom and making progress. That's why we spend so much money on public education in America. Along with parental guidance, a market economy and our armed forces, it's a big cog in the wheel of freedom.

Look around the world. Where universal education and free expression have been historically valued, there is ordered liberty. Conversely, dictators know that their jobs depend on keeping the public ignorant, cowed and silent.

If our professors make you uncomfortable or agitated, that's part of their job and they're earning their pay, so please let us know about it. And let them know, too, by publishing or speaking your rebuttal. You'll be doing your part to promote freedom and progress.

Dyer is executive vice president and chief operating officer at Coastal Carolina University.