Sifting and Winnowing: A Recommitment to Academic Freedom

Presented at UW-Parkside’s “Sifting and Winnowing” Plaque Rededication Ceremony, November 30, 1998

The University of Wisconsin-Parkside has chosen an auspicious time to rededicate its two “sifting and winnowing” plaques. Installing these plaques and displaying them so prominently offers another protective shield that guards one of academe’s most treasured possessions, academic freedom.

I say this because fresh attacks are being mounted against academic freedom and free speech—-against everything the sifting and winnowing statement represents. These attacks come not from outside the academy. Paradoxically, they come from within. The perpetrators include faculty members, administrators, and student government leaders who want to impose their particular views on their colleagues and often on the institution itself.

Before expanding on this theme, I want to comment about my fellow economist Richard T. Ely, who was the center of the controversy that led to the famous sifting and winnowing statement.Let us go back to 1894. At that time, universities were governed by boards, such as the Board of Regents, composed of prominent citizens, many of them businessmen. Typically, neither the boards nor their members were noted for their tolerance of new ideas or of open debate about controversial issues. At the same time, faculty members in the budding field of the social sciences, made up then largely of economists, found themselves increasingly caught up in promoting reform in many arenas of public life. After developing their positions and proposals through research and observation, they began expounding their views in their writings and teaching. Not unexpectedly, they began to annoy the rich and powerful.Some academics proved to be more extreme than others, and Ely was among them. Indeed, he subscribed to what was called the social gospel, an outlook that promoted a kind of Christian capitalism. Hence, Ely was well known as a controversial figure.In the summer of 1894, only a year after Ely joined the University of Wisconsin faculty, a member of the Board of Regents lodged public charges against him. Ely was accused of teaching socialist ideas, promoting unions, fomenting boycotts, and the like. The charges gained national attention. Something had to be done. The Board of Regents appointed a committee of members to investigate. A hearing was scheduled. The Board of Regents sat in judgment. To make a long story short, the basis for these charges proved to be groundless, and Ely was exonerated.

To its credit, the Board of Regents, with the help and encouragement of UW President Charles Adams, issued a statement that included these memorable words:


Some years later the graduating class of 1910 decided that the words from the Board of Regents statement should receive greater prominence. It proceeded to commission a plaque, which it then presented to the University as its class gift. This event provoked considerable controversy; indeed, the Regents thought the students were trying to embarrass them because of several academic freedom issues arising earlier that spring. In any case, the plaque was soon relegated to a storeroom. As the Class of 1910’s fifth year reunion approached, questions arose about why the plaque had never been installed. After much ado, an agreement was reached. The Board finally accepted the plaque, and it was installed at the front entrance to Bascom Hall. There it has remained, except for a brief interlude in Fall 1957 when student pranksters removed it. The plaque later turned up on Willow Drive at the west end of the campus.The statement on the plaque has received national attention because it remains perhaps the most forceful and vivid expression of a university’s commitment to the search for truth. It also affirms the right, indeed, the obligation, of faculty and students to pursue the truth through the sifting and winnowing process.

The plaque’s significance is best described by UW-Madison Professor of Oncology Waclaw Szybalski. He emigrated from Poland in 1949 and knew first-hand what can happen when the principle of academic freedom is compromised, as it was under the Communist regime. In his comments at the 1994 Academic Freedom Conference, he said:

Why is this “sifting and winnowing” statement so important? Because it so clearly and poetically states the principle of the freedom to teach and research, because it is unique, because it stresses that the University of Wisconsin will not be swayed by temporary vogues or political trends, even if they should prevail at other institutions, and because this declaration is expressed in such beautiful and moving language. Maybe I am an incorrigible idealist and romantic, even at my age, but each time I read it, I feel a tingle go down my spine and I feel somewhat emotional, I am embarrassed to admit. I am certainly a devotee of this plaque, and I walk all my visitors and collaborators to Bascom Hill, to let them read it and be inspired.

I could tell you much about the plaque and what it means. But you can find that out for yourself by reading a new 1998 book, Academic Freedom on Trial: 100 Years of Sifting and Winnowing at the University of Wisconsin. Copies can be ordered through your campus bookstore. As the editor of the book, I recommend it to you! I am pleased to add that the book just received a glowing review in ACADEME, the Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors.

Let me now touch briefly on the new threats to academic freedom and free speech, at least as they look from Madison. In fact, the number and variety of academic freedom and free speech issues on the Madison campus is unprecedented.

  • The disgraceful student disruptions of, first, the Governor, who spoke at the University’s sesquicentennial celebration on Bascom Hill in mid-September, and then California Regent Ward Connerly, who spoke about ending racial/ethnic preferences at the Memorial Union in late September; and the bizarre assertion by students of their “right to speak” through vocal disruptions that impede or prevent speakers whose views they dislike from presenting those views in reasoned discourse at campus forums.
  • The recent release of contested recommendations (by a 9-8 vote) from a faculty-staff-student special committee that call for modifying the UW-Madison’s faculty speech code, which attempts to regulate faculty speech that may be interpreted as demeaning students on the basis of their race, ethnicity, gender, etc.
  • The far-fetched claim by student government—Associated Students of Madison (ASM)—that the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to let the segregated fee decision stand (meaning that students cannot be compelled to pay student fees that are used to subsidize student organizations whose positions they disagree with) undercuts the academic freedom of students and inhibits their free speech rights.
  • Continued fallout from the Reebok contract with the Athletic Department several years ago that, in its original version, contained a “no disparagement” clause. That clause in effect prevented any University employee from making negative comments about the Reebok products UW athletic teams are required to use under the contract.

Time permits me to comment on only two of these issues.

Campus Speakers

Disrupting campus speakers is hardly new at UW-Madison. The campus has a long history of such disruptions. But, such behavior is to be deplored, and it should be even more vigorously deplored by faculty, administrators, and students themselves.Two headline-grabbing disruptions occurred this fall. The first occurred when the Governor spoke at a celebration of the University’s sesquicentennial in mid-September. Several protesting students, including the leader of the UW-Madison’s student government, tried to interrupt the Governor. Two disruptive students were arrested, but the charges of disrupting the peace were later dismissed. Among the justifications given for the disruption was the absence of a student speaker in this important all-campus event, and the belief that students had a right to have their representative speak. Whether a student representative should have been invited to speak at this event is another issue. Whatever the case, the absence of a student on the podium does not sanction disruptions by aggrieved students. Students must make their case in some other way, in some other forum. What the disrupters did denied the speaker’s right to speak and also the right of listeners to hear what the speaker had to say.

The second occurred when California Regent Ward Connerly came to campus at the end of September to speak against affirmative action. A group of students had marched earlier in the day to protest both the inviting of Connerly to speak and his position on affirmative action. Student government leaders, in particular, objected to his call for eliminating racial preferences in college admissions. That evening, the protesting students appeared in force, even rehearsing their tactics in the lobby before the Union Theater’s doors opened. When Connerly took the stage and began speaking, he was booed, hissed, coughed at, hummed to, and treated to the noise of crumpling paper—all juvenile, fifth-grade tactics. After 15 or 20 minutes, he terminated his prepared and proceeded to take questions.

The disrupting students then objected to the format that had been established which required audience members to write their questions on 3×5 cards. More important, however, they objected to his responses. They quickly began shouting their disagreement. Soon, they stood and yelled even louder while at the same time raising their arms in fascist-like salutes. Finally, Connerly walked off the stage. He did later return to take direct questions from the students. As Connerly said on Wisconsin Public Radio the following day, some of the disrupting students came up afterwards to say they appreciated a chance to hear his views. When I had breakfast with him the following morning, he said that the disruptions only proved that his message is an effective one.

These seemingly isolated events add up to a larger story.

  • Fear of disruptions, by those who bring speakers to campus restricts the variety of speakers and limits opportunities for students to hear controversial views.
  • Threats of protests have led to the withdrawal of already-issued invitations to controversial speakers.
  • Knowledge that speakers may be disrupted is likely to cause some speakers to reject invitations to speak at UW-Madison.

What suffers most is respect for the diversity of ideas and the exchange of ideas that is at the core of a university and life within it. In effect, a few students deny the opportunity for many other students to hear these ideas. Condemnation of speakers—ASM condemned Connerly’s speech—is silly, but of course this is a free country. At a deeper level, however, student responses to Connerly’s visit make a mockery of the “sifting and winnowing” statement.What has come out of these events? UW-Madison Chancellor David Ward’s statement to the Faculty Senate on the Connerly episode constituted what has been described as, at best, a “tepid” defense of the right of speakers to be heard. The subsequent failure of the Faculty Senate to approve a University Committee statement restating the right of invited speakers to speak without disruption proved to be disheartening. Meanwhile, the Chancellor appointed a committee to examine these matters. That is where matters now stand.

These developments lead one to ask: Where are the articulate defenders of free speech on the Madison campus and in the City of Madison? Of course, the Wisconsin State Journal spoke out forcefully; so did the Daily Cardinal. John Nichols of the Capital Times criticized the campus administration and faculty for not taking a firm stand, but at the same time suggested that vigorous debate involves, perhaps requires, students to object as they did. The Badger Herald proved to be strangely silent, but its stance can probably be explained by the trauma endured by its editors the day after the Connerly speech. Later that evening a group of black students forced the editors to write for their immediate approval, an apology for publishing what was admittedly an offensive cartoon about the Connerly visit. Would not a published written statement by the objecting students have been a better approach than forcing a public apology?

To sum up, for its efforts to defend free speech, the campus gets at best a C-; the grade should probably be a D, but we do live in a world of grade inflation! How soon the UW-Madison can recover its commitment to the free exchange of ideas remains to be seen.

Faculty Speech Code

Several reports on the faculty speech code have just recently been released, and I have not yet studied them closely. However, having monitored their regular meetings throughout the last academic year, I am well acquainted with the majority and minority positions which are spelled out in the most recent issue of Wisconsin Week.I appreciate the concerns of both the majority and the minority that the revised faculty speech code provides more protection for faculty members. This is important because in the past few years several faculty have been put through the wringer by the university administration because of anonymous allegations they used inappropriate speech in the classroom. How these cases have been handled is a matter of great concern. Indeed, the university’s present rules are gravely deficient in providing due process for accused faculty members. This shortcoming led a group of a dozen or so faculty members to create an organization, the Faculty Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, which lends support, including legal counsel, to faculty members who have been charged with offensive speech and similar charges.

My more fundamental objection is that both the old and new code, but especially the new code, conflate issues of harassment with issues of free speech in the classroom. The new code admittedly contains much-improved language dealing with classroom speech. However, when this language is included in faculty legislation whose title contains the word “harassment,” it virtually guarantees that infractions will be dealt with by what I call employment law rather than the legal precedents associated with free speech, and particularly speech in a classroom setting. The problem with employment law and the associated concept of a hostile workplace is that it does not apply to the classroom. Certainly, sexual harassment is taboo in employment situations; it is also taboo in a university setting, and in the relations between students and faculty. But classroom speech that may demean or offend, whether or not associated with one’s race or ethnicity, for example, is not the same thing as the use of such language in the workplace. Of course, many people, and many faculty, would like to make that connection. They want to give legitimacy to the concept of the hostile classroom as a parallel to the hostile workplace. That is overreaching. The tragedy is that this interpretation would bring the classroom under federal jurisdiction rather than leaving it for universities to handle in appropriate ways, given their focus on student learning rather than production for pay. For the majority to rest its claims on the assertion that professors have power over students through the grading system is, to my mind, an extreme view.

These two issues will be played out over the next several months. Meanwhile, other issues of parallel interest are coming to the surface. For example, the Madison campus, along with all other UW System campuses, must develop new diversity plans for the next decade. The unwillingness to tolerate open debate on this issue, even in the UW-Madison’s Faculty Senate, is deplorable. But, until we begin to talk about diversity and what it means, or should mean, we can never reach any understanding or resolution. We need to practice “sifting and winnowing” not only in our teaching and research but also in faculty governance.

My recommendation is that you stay tuned on these issues. You will be hearing more about them in the near future.In the meantime, make “sifting and winnowing” an integral part of your discourse here at UW-Parkside, in the classroom, in your research, at Department meetings, and during Faculty Senate deliberations. Constant vigilance is required for the sifting and winnowing tradition to flourish and to permit truth to emerge. Thank you.

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