Interview: CMC Dean Uvin and Freedom of Speech

The Claremont Independent was able to sit down with Claremont McKenna College’s (CMC) Dean of Faculty, Peter Uvin, and discuss his involvement with the Heterodox Academy—a non-partisan organization of professors and graduate students dedicated to promoting intellectual diversity and freedom of speech on college campuses—as well as his thoughts on free speech and intellectual diversity in education.

Uvin found Heterodox’s website interesting in its initial creation, but did not commit to joining until last year when he was looking to incorporate material on the importance of free speech into CMC’s orientation program.

Uvin was kind enough to answer some questions when I interviewed him on behalf of the Independent regarding his thoughts on freedom of speech and intellectual diversity on campus. What follows is an abridged version of my interview, edited for concision and clarity; the full text of the interview can be found here.

When I asked if Uvin had a sense of a need for more education on free speech and dialogue on campus, he replied that most students favor free speech, albeit with some caveats:

“Literally everybody I know is in favor of free speech. Including every student. When you ask them as such. The problem is that people don’t necessarily understand what that fully means in practice. And how far it actually goes to be in favor of it. And sometimes for reasons that I think are extremely understandable and actually kind-hearted reasons, people end up without maybe even realizing it themselves, actually not being in favor of free speech.”

He continued by saying that he has searched for ways to communicate that contradiction to young adults: “If you are in favor of free speech, you actually can’t add a whole lot of qualifiers to it. It’s a relatively fundamental thing, that may at times feel unjust or painful or whatever. And yet that actually, precisely that actually, is part of being in favor of it.”

The conversation then became a larger discussion about free speech and whether there are any appropriate limits. Dean Uvin believes that the topic is complex, but thinks that there is very little room for placing limits on free speech. Instead, he believes that the key to quelling disrespectful behaviour is strengthening communal bonds: “I could call you whatever I want to call you, frankly, but you would have the right to feel deeply offended and to frankly think that I would be highly unprofessional if I did that,” Dean Uvin explained. “And so there are deep expectations that you can have towards me about how I should as Dean, or as Professor, or as administrator, or as fellow human being, frankly, behave to you.”

“I have free speech the whole time, and yet you expect of me, and I should, I think, behave, that I limit that to some extent. And uphold certain principles and standards. And I think, in return, I expect some of those things of you. And these things are not written down anywhere necessarily, they are in our minds and to some extent in our hearts. And maybe the more we are ‘a community’ the more we are inclined to spontaneously behave actually according to these norms almost that we have been socialized into. And it doesn’t contradict that there is free speech. The fact that we can do something, doesn’t mean that we do it. Right? And I suppose that what’s happening now days is the less and less we see ourselves as being part of the same community, and governed by the same rules, the more and more we start testing the outer boundaries of that speech. And all try to clamp down.”

When I asked Uvin if he thought the Claremont Colleges—a consortium CMC is part of—were lacking in cohesive community, he said he was not sure, but thought it was the case in society as a whole.

Dean Uvin thinks that the key to maintaining free speech, and a culture which supports it, is retaining the ability to listen to other people’s differences. “It’s not my job to decide what students get to hear or to like or to adopt or to go home with,” Uvin said, “But it is my job to ensure that they get a fair hearing of diverse perspectives. And this is exactly what Heterodox Academy is dedicated to and it’s exactly what I like. Or why I joined it.”

One of the features Uvin prizes about CMC is that it has greater viewpoint diversity than average for a highly-selective college, in his opinion. “It’s actually one of the reasons that I came,” he said. He explained his belief that most professors actually try to encourage their students to think through both sides of an issue, but that intellectual diversity helped deepen that affect, which he thinks is vital to a good education.

“If you walked in and out of here, unchallenged and largely thinking the same thoughts and thinking them in the same way then frankly this was just an expensive holiday. So the point of a good education is to make you or to encourage you, we can’t force anybody, but to encourage you as much as we can, to think more broadly,” Uvin said. “The point is not to change your ideology, that’s not my business. You figure out yourself where you stand on these matters and where you stand on them today might well not be where you stand on them ten years from now or twenty or thirty and that’s your life. But the point would be that you understood the methods and the assumptions and the approaches and the rich intellectual histories that underlie either or all of them.”

I finished by asking Uvin if he sees particular ways that students can become involved, formally or informally, in encouraging freedom of speech and intellectual diversity.

“At the end of the day, it’s more in students’ hands than in administrators’’ hands. We can try, we can set rules, we can pontificate a little bit here and there. And whatever, but ultimately students make this campus, honestly more than I do, which probably is a good thing” Dean Uvin replied.

“The real-life challenge for most of us is to combine a commitment and a willingness to challenge and be challenged, right? Which is that whole free speech idea. With an equally strong commitment and willingness to listen very carefully and fairly and openly. And I can’t actually force anybody to do that. I can only say what a great thing it is if we can do it. And how much we can learn if we can do that.” he elaborated. “Maybe not in public, at the moment we are listening to something, that we are pissed and in our head we are already thinking of the many reasons why somebody is wrong. And we are good at that because we are smart. That little voice that finds little holes in somebody else’s argument is always working well. But maybe in the evening, to just take a moment and say, hmm, did they actually make a point? What if I were in their shoes? How would I see it in that case.”

“While you’re in college this is the moment to keep on questioning, keep on learning, including yourself. We’re always better at questioning somebody else than ourselves. And that’s human.”

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