One of the trustees at Illinois College, where I work, wants to be sure everyone knows that my columns do not reflect the official positions of the College. I’m guessing that trustee does not agree with my politics. I also think this reflects a misunderstanding.
In the first place, Illinois College has no official position on global warming, the value of unions, how to celebrate Christmas, or any of the other subjects I write about. That is a beautiful thing. In countries where there is little freedom of opinion, all institutions, especially those connected directly with the state, are expected to take public positions that mirror official state policy. Dictatorships do not tolerate dissent, so that all public institutions must toe the party line. Here in America we can rejoice in the freedom of our public and private institutions of higher learning to maintain neutrality on controversial public issues. Illinois College’s official position is to accept and encourage a diversity of opinion on all kinds of issues, rather than to pick a side.
That official neutrality in turn allows people who work in higher education to stake out our own individual political positions. A second beautiful thing about American freedom is that I am permitted to write what I want about politics. Because Illinois College has no official political positions, what I say in these columns or elsewhere is assumed to be my own opinion. My writing can be judged on its merits.
This freedom from government thought control must always be defended. The recent effort of Wisconsin Republicans to silence Professor Bill Cronon, historian at the University of Wisconsin, because he was critical of the legislation to remove collective bargaining rights from Wisconsin state employees, shows how easy it is for politicians to try to punish political speech they don’t like.
These efforts can come from the left or the right. In communist countries, educational institutions did take official positions, and all of their faculty had to follow them to the letter. In the middle of the twentieth century, college professors in the US were expected to support the government’s witch-hunt for hidden communists, which was led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, but supported much more broadly by the FBI, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the American Legion, and a host of other private and public bodies. Although the ostensible purpose of McCarthy’s secret lists and loyalty oaths and investigations into people’s personal lives was to protect the US from foreign subversion, the search for communists was used for political advantage to weaken labor unions, attack civil rights activists, and squelch any criticism of American foreign policy. Faculty at many universities were fired, because their political views were seen as dissenting from this official position.
Since the 1960s, freedom of political opinion has once again become the norm in our schools. Many conservatives today are angry that faculties tend toward the liberal side of political issues, but that is simply the result of the individual decisions of thousands of professors. Nobody forces us to take any position on any issue. We all expect each other to take positions that are supported by evidence and logic.
My ability to express my own opinions in this column represents one of the great freedoms which America, and the American educational system, provides. I do not have to submit my writing for approval, nor fear that my job would be endangered by what I say.
I do not know what the official position of Illinois College is about anything that I write about, nor do I think there is such a position. Even if there were, I do not represent it, any more than I represent the official line of any other organization I belong to. For that freedom, I am thankful.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 12, 2011