President Brodheads Remarks to the Duke University Board of Trustees
I want to spend the balance of my remarks by sharing some of my thoughts about the upcoming 4th National Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement, which, as you know, is scheduled to be held on campus in two weeks. Last year at this time, Duke was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Bassett Affair, a landmark decision at our campus and in the history of academic freedom in our country. One year later, Duke is facing a new test of our universitys commitment to the same principle of academic freedom. I am proud of the way the university is conducting itself in the current instance, and am grateful for the indications of support that I have received from members of the Board for our decision to permit this controversial conference to occur.
The decision to allow this conference to be held at Duke has required that we balance our sympathy for those who would be troubled by it with our fundamental commitment to issues of free speech. Past and current horrors arising from terrible hatreds have made many concerned with the issues of the Israel-Palestine conflict profoundly sensitive to any action that might be construed as even remotely endangering the state of Israel or that might be conceived as failing to understand the plight of Palestinians. I understood, therefore, that the issue of the conference would bring us into an area of the deepest passions and fears, and likely controversy. Indeed, my expectations have been realized. While we have received many communications supporting Dukes decision to allow the conference, they have been overwhelmed by communications condemning us, based largely on informationin many cases misinformationin a petition circulating on the Internet, which, at last count, had more than 69,000 signatures.
We have heard claims from people who insist this group is anti-Semitic or connected to terrorists, including allegations of things that have been said or done at previous conferences at other schools. However, when we have checked out these claims with our colleagues at other universities and with police authorities, the first-hand accounts we hear often have been quite different. Thus, although we are proceeding cautiously, we are wary of the worst predictions weve heard about the conference at Duke, as they are at odds with our experience to date with the student organizers here.
As I have indicated in meetings with many groups, including leaders of the Jewish community across the state and on campus, the decision to allow the conference to be held was in no way an endorsement of the sponsors views. At its core, this decision tested the universitys commitment to academic freedom. All ideas are not equal, but it is a foundational principle of American life that all ideas should have an equal opportunity to be expressed, and the right of free speech is not limited to speech we approve of. Universities, in particular, must give wide latitude to free speech and free debate because the pursuit of truth through the encounter of divergent points of view is the very medium of education. When universities get in the business of suppressing speech, however vile, they give credence to the notion that it is a legitimate function of the university to suppress speech. A notion is thereby validated that then can be activated on another occasionperhaps to suppress our own dissent or unpopular expression. The day we start making it easy to shut down others opinions is the day we license a curtailment of freedom from which we could each suffer, in turn.
I have spoken to the evils of terrorism at this years 9-11 memorial program on campus. Violence is the antithesis of reason. I deplore the violence in the Middle East. I deplore the historic inability of the Israelis and Palestinians to find a workable solution to their longstanding and awful conflict. But it is my profound belief that the long-term solution to these issues will come more from open and honest discussion and mutual exploration of divergent points of view rather than from the squelching or suppression of one side.
I have been gratified by the general recognition that Dukes hosting a speaker or conference does not imply endorsement of the views expressed. Both the Graduate and Professional Student Council and the Duke Student Government have issued strong statements on academic freedom and free speech, as has The Chronicle in an editorial. The response of our campus community and local groups has been encouraging and, as I understand it, different from that experienced at some of the other campuses where this conference previously has been held. While many here are troubled by the possibility that extreme points of view might be expressed, most have appreciated the even greater importance of protecting free speech. For example, rather than condemning the conference, students working with Dukes Freeman Center for Jewish Life and others are identifying ways to bring additional information to the public to enhance understanding of Israel and the complex issues that have made this conflict so difficult to resolve. A house course on the history of Israel and Palestine has been developed. Students have planned a Concert Against Terrorism on the night before the conference. We know that a number of faculty are exploring the issue in their classes. Panel discussions involving leading Duke faculty with expertise in these issues are being organized.
Several nationally prominent speakers will be coming to Duke during the year to help all of us gain a deeper understanding of the history, cultural issues, political challenges, and potential solutions to the conflict. As one of my colleagues has said, one need only to read the news pages, letters, and columns in The Chronicle in recent days to appreciate the degree to which our community is now engaged in education about the conflict as a result of the controversy over the conference. In other words, this educational community is working to make this three-day event part of a broad, year-long educational discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
I also have been greatly encouraged by the response of the leaders of the Jewish federations in North Carolina with whom I met early last week. They have communicated with their membership that they recognize the important principles which governed our decision to support the Duke students who are hosting the conference, and have urged concerned citizens not to protest the conference, but instead to support the activities of the Freeman Center and other groups.
The next few weeks promise to test our university in many ways. I am confident this current controversy will eventually be seen as a moment when Duke demonstrated leadership and preserved a principle at the core of what universities must be about.