IUP President Michael Driscoll read the following statement at a press conference on March 19, 2018:
If you have been paying attention to the news or certain social media sites, you might get the impression that IUP is in some sort of crisis of identity or of quality or of failure to adhere to the basic principles of our society. This is just not true. IUP continues to do what it has always done: provide students with excellent education in and out of the classroom, the sort of education that prepares them to be productive, responsible citizens and that is based on the foundation of solid scholarship and exploration that is the root of our society’s success.
Where we have fallen short, and where I am disappointed in us, is in following the IUP Way, in which we work together to address challenges and in which we treat each other with respect and dignity even when we disagree. Let me explain why I am disappointed.
A little over a month ago, we learned that a recognized student organization had invited the founder of its national organization to speak at IUP. The organization is conservative in nature and has some vocal critics. Some started name-calling, referring to the speaker and the leaders of the IUP student organization as Nazis and fascists and the like, demanding that I not allow the speaker to appear on campus. And the student leaders, stung by the names, demanded that I make those people stop it.
In a free society, people with opinions you don’t like are allowed to exist, are allowed to speak, and can call you names. People are even allowed to write essays that use violent metaphors to describe their feelings about a challenging situation without fear of punishment. There are legal limits on free speech, but imposing them requires meeting a very high standard, such as an imminent and direct threat of harm to another. That said, I am disappointed that in the presence of a test of our devotion to the First Amendment and to the IUP Way, we fell short as a community.
More recently, as reported in some national and regional news, a student was temporarily removed from a class for behavior that the faculty member (and at least some classmates) viewed as disruptive to the learning environment. You may not know that student behavior that disrupts the learning environment is another valid reason for limiting free speech in a classroom, as recognized by the Supreme Court. Again, however, the court sets a very high standard and none of us may make such a decision lightly. While the question of whether or not the student’s behavior met that standard was being reviewed by the established university process, the student chose to take his version of events to the media. And as you probably know, the university is not allowed to violate his privacy rights by sharing the entirety of the matter.
As I see it, a more thoughtful application of the IUP Way would probably have resulted in a reasonable resolution of the matter, with significantly less anger and anxiety, and without spurring the resulting spate of invective, threat, obscene phone calls, and misinformation. As a result of how things have played, I am afraid that the thoughtful, dispassionate review of the matter is impossible. I do, however, believe that the IUP community is filled with good people and hope that a somewhat tardy application of the IUP Way will resolve the matter such that we all learn something and can improve how we work together in the future.
Based on a review of governing policies, last week the student was informed that he is allowed to attend class. I hope he will be in attendance this week and beyond. To help ensure that a positive learning environment is maintained, I have asked a senior faculty member with significant experience in the First Amendment and a long career as a successful classroom teacher to join the class as a monitor and a mentor for all.
After further consideration, and without having seen the decision or reasoning of the Academic Integrity Board that met on March 9, 2018 to review the case, I have decided to indefinitely pause the formal university process without resolution. To foster behaviors leading to a constructive learning environment, I have asked Assistant to the President for Social Equity, Dr. Pablo Mendoza, to facilitate discussions among members of the class. If these steps do not yield positive results, I reserve the option to restart the university’s formal processes.
Following this course opens me to charges of not following agreed upon processes and policies, and perhaps to grievances and lawsuits. In this instance, however, I believe that the exceptional importance of the fundamental issues therein represented require exceptional measures. In matters that involve the fundamental values of IUP such as open discussion, civil dialogue, and reasoned disagreement in the service of learning, I will take the risks rather than rest on the safe but “foolish consistency that is the hobgoblin of little minds.”1
I am hopeful that what we all learn in the weeks ahead will inform a thorough review and revision of the underlying university policies to make sure that we are meeting our educational mission in the IUP Way, while complying with the law of the land.
1Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance, 1841.