Below is an email that was sent to the JMU community on February 14, 2022, nearly 20 days after the Madison Cabinet website was publicly launched. The Madison Cabinet is appreciative of these efforts to raise awareness about the importance of free speech in our democracy on campus, but we must ensure that all sides and perspectives are not only heard, but welcomed. The Madison Cabinet has been in touch with students and faculty, not included in the university video, to get their candid opinion about the environment on campus.
According to the only posted document from JMU's most recent Board of Visitors meeting on February 10, President Alger and University Counsel presented professional development scenarios on free speech where the Board members were put in different groups and discussed two different scenarios. Unfortunately, there is no way for the public to know the exact nature of the two scenarios, so the commentary provided by Board members is without context.
You can view the Board of Visitors meeting and free speech session here beginning at 1 hour and 47 minutes into the recording.
Dear members of the JMU community, I’m delighted to share this link to a newly produced video on the value and importance of free speech in our educational environment. I would especially like to thank our entire creative team, along with the Madison Center for Civic Engagement and the Democracy Fellows, for putting it together. Lately, I’ve been participating in numerous national discussions about civic engagement, civil discourse, the health of a pluralistic democracy, and the role of higher education in nurturing and sustaining our civic life and institutions. In today’s highly polarized environment, higher education is often portrayed as a place where free expression is threatened by various orthodoxies, and occasional campus incidents are quickly and not always accurately turned into headlines. While faculty, staff and students at JMU hold beliefs and perspectives that range a broad spectrum, open dialogue and free expression of differing views is encouraged and fostered. In fact, such exchanges are foundational to higher learning: if preconceptions are not challenged, the truth is never uncovered and no real learning takes place. This video prominently features the voice of students from a variety of political and social backgrounds—a voice that has often been missing in the national debate about campus free speech. I hope this video will provide an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our purpose and values in this educational community—a place of learning that is built on relationships. Just a few days ago, I had the privilege of attending a concert at the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts by the Lviv National Philharmonic Orchestra of Ukraine. This inspiring event served as a powerful reminder that our freedoms in democracy are under threat around the world and cannot be taken for granted. The concert brought to mind an exhibit honoring former U.S. President Herbert Hoover that I stumbled upon a few weeks ago with a colleague while attending a convening on issues of free speech and civic engagement at Stanford University. After World War I, and before he became President, Hoover led the American Relief Organization that provided food, clothing and medicine to millions of people in Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union. Years later, as the shadow of war hung once again over the world, Hoover had this to say about free speech:
The durability of free speech and free press rests on the simple concept that it search for the truth and tell the truth… Free expression will not survive if it be used to stir malice in the minds of men. It will not survive if it be used to exploit hate. Herbert Hoover, “Free Speech and Free Press” speech, November 8, 1937.
Hoover’s humanitarian work, and his warning about how expression can be manipulated, reminds us that our freedoms come with both rights and responsibilities. Free speech in higher education requires us to find ways to engage in vigorous discussions and debates while respecting one another, listening to one another, committing honestly to facts and being open to new perspectives. This is our messy but essential mission. How we engage matters. In that spirit, I hope we can reflect on how we can serve as a model for the world of a healthy, pluralistic learning community in which people of all backgrounds and viewpoints can survive and thrive. That is our privilege and our calling. Sincerely, Jonathan R. Alger President James Madison University