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Free Speech, Education Among Spring Topics at SUNY Plattsburgh Ethics Institute

dan lakeThe SUNY Plattsburgh Institute for Ethics in Public Life will launch its spring forum series with “The Purpose of Public Higher Education” Wednesday, Jan. 31 beginning at 3:30 p.m. in the Thomas Moran Seminar Room, Hawkins 233.

According to Dr. Daniel Lake, institute director and associate professor and chair of political science, the forum series isn’t expected “to resolve these debates but rather to shed some light on these issues by sharing our thoughts on which of these we, as members of university communities and our society, value and support and why.”

In the institute newsletter introducing the spring 2024 series, Lake writes, “In the United States today, the purpose of public higher education is contested.”

Prospective students and their families seem increasingly likely to view college in “narrowly transactional terms” as career preparation. Cuts in public funding have made universities highly dependent on tuition and fees for revenues, so administrators often respond to student and parent demands by focusing on the ‘value proposition’ offered by different programs and shape curricula to emphasize programs in high demand,” he said.

But at the same time, public colleges and universities “are buffeted by competing demands to serve ends beyond career preparation,” he said. “These include promoting social change and mobility culture through the arts and humanities and preparing students to be citizens. Of course, all of these are contested by those who see little value in or are actively hostile to these goals.”

Free Speech on Campus

The following week, Feb. 7 from 3:30 to 5 p.m., the forum tackles the First Amendment’s guarantee to freedom of speech and how in recent years this freedom has been contested on college campuses.

“Examples of this include governments regulating the subject matter that can be taught — for example, Florida banning courses and programs that teach ‘identity politics,’” Lake said in the newsletter.

Other examples include faculty being targeted for expressing controversial positions publicly or in the classroom, guest speakers shouted down by students who object to their perspective — Jordan Peterson, Charles Murray — and students criticized by other students or punished by prospective employers over their public political stances — for example, the war in Gaza, he said.

Lake said academic freedom is crucial for institutions of higher education to contribute to social goods like educating citizens, preparing them for the workforce, personal development, supporting social mobility, generating new scholarship. For these reasons, academic freedom is usually enshrined in university charters and faculty union contracts, he said.

“On the other hand, freedom of speech on campus is being challenged from across the political spectrum on the grounds that the ideas being expressed are socially or individually harmful,” he said.

How can we, as members of a university community, navigate this challenging environment, he said.

“What are appropriate restrictions on freedom of speech on campus, and which are inappropriate?”

Participants can attend in person or via Zoom. Space is limited.

The Jan. 31 Zoom link is https://plattsburgh.zoom.us/j/97199265391. Follow via Zoom Feb. 7 at https://plattsburgh.zoom.us/j/95405207871.

Faculty, staff, students and community members are also welcome to drop by the institute from 3:30 to 5 p.m. for general discussions on Wednesdays when specific topics are not already scheduled. There will be no March 20 discussion.

For more information, contact Lake at 518-564-5830 or email [email protected].

— By Assistant Director Communications Felicia Krieg

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