Message About Controversial Speaker from President Herbst

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Dear Colleagues and Students,

As many of you are aware, earlier this week, a speaker invited by a UConn student group came to the Storrs campus. All student groups and other campus associations are free to invite speakers and reserve space for programming.

Many of us found the comments of this particular speaker, Lucian Wintrich, to be loathsome. His main goal appeared to be to perform and provoke. Nonetheless, he was within his rights to speak on campus and express himself.

As always, honoring an individual’s rights does not imply an endorsement of their message by the university and allowing someone to speak is not the same as welcoming their speech. This is true with any speaker who comes to our campuses.

At the same time, event organizers must also be prepared for the potential consequences of their choices, especially with respect to controversial or extreme speakers. We all share in a responsibility to help create and support respectful dialogue on our campuses, and this did not fall into that category. What the impact of a particular program may be must be a key consideration in planning it, including its costs, both financial and with respect to how a program may be received by the campus community.

Having the right to do something and the wisdom of that choice can be two very different things.

Going forward, the university will strengthen and enhance existing protocols to help ensure proper planning well in advance and to make the potential consequences and costs of their choices clearer to student groups.

As we have all by now seen, Tuesday’s event did not go well. Some audience members jeered for the duration of the event. Wintrich continually had exchanges with individuals in the audience. The evening ended with the speaker appearing to physically accost a woman who had taken his notes. Following that, he was arrested by UConn Police. Later, a window was shattered and a smoke bomb was set off. A student was arrested for breaking the window; it remains unknown who set off the smoke bomb, but police are investigating.

It was the skillful professionalism of our police and Student Affairs staff that helped prevent this disappointing event from turning into a disaster. We have seen on other campuses and in other cities how destructive and even deadly such confrontations can be. Thankfully, no one was injured on Tuesday.

The core principles of our institution are rooted in intellectual pursuits based on reason, thoughtful debate, and free and open argument. No aspect of what took place on Tuesday reflected this.

Tuesday was a test for our campuses, and we will be tested again. Even absent someone as extreme and hateful as Wintrich – or any outside speaker – a tension exists when it comes to clashes of ideas on campuses among people who hold opposing views, even on mainstream issues that are commonly debated in the political world. This is not unique to UConn.

Since Tuesday, I have been meeting with students, faculty, and staff to discuss ways in which we can support and encourage a climate of elevated, respectful intellectual discourse and argument on our campuses – especially among those who hold opposing views.

Next week, I will assemble a group of UConn faculty, staff, and students and ask them to conceive of an effective strategy to further enhance a climate at UConn that fosters healthy argument, debate, and discussion on our campuses (even if it comes at a financial cost during these difficult budget times). We already have excellent faculty whose work closely aligns with these and other related issues.

This will speak directly to the goal of supporting the free exchange of ideas and respectful argument – even if passionate – at our university. UConn is already recognized as one of the finest public institutions in the nation. Ideally, UConn will further distinguish itself nationally as a place where elevated civil discourse thrives in the most positive and beneficial ways, even if it challenges us at times.

Why would a university allow someone like Lucian Wintrich to speak on campus at all? Because free speech is rooted in the First Amendment and is vital to our democracy. Our nation was founded on it. And it is by challenging those we disagree with in a free and open environment that falsehoods can be answered with truth and right can defeat wrong, for all to see and hear.

Tuesday’s event was a disappointment in every respect, but I believe the university learned from it, and will become a better place as a result. As president, I continually think of the future our students will all inhabit and the leaders you will become. We must never avoid increasing our awareness of the struggles our world faces while embracing our capacity to make change as citizens in a democracy.

Quoting the philosopher John Dewey: “Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”

Sincerely,

Susan Herbst