Fearless sifting and winnowing

University of Wisconsin President Charles Adams – credited with coining the phrase “fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found”

The recent protests on several college campuses and the response by the leaders of those institutions have raised important issues that deserve public debate. One of the most important is free speech. The question is whether colleges and universities should allow speech by students, faculty, or outside speakers when some, or even most, of the people find the speech offensive.

Some historical perspective, as always, is helpful.  In the late 1800’s a University of Wisconsin professor was verbally attacked by the State Superintendent of Education for his teaching and writings. The professor was pro-union and had written a book on socialism.  The issue came to the Board of Regents to determine if the professor should be censured.  The Board of Regents created a committee to look into the matter. Their report contained the following paragraph (see below).  It is an eloquent and persuasive defense of free speech.  It established a bedrock principle for the operation of colleges and universities. Would the Board of Regents come to the same conclusion today?

“As Regents of a university with over a hundred instructors supported by nearly two millions of people who hold a vast diversity of views regarding the great questions which at present agitate the human mind, we could not for a moment think of recommending the dismissal or even the criticism of a teacher even if some of his opinions should, in some quarters, be regarded as visionary. Such a course would be equivalent to saying that no professor should teach anything which is not accepted by everybody as true. This would cut our curriculum down to very small proportions. We cannot for a moment believe that knowledge has reached its final goal, or that the present condition of society is perfect. We must therefore welcome from our teachers such discussions as shall suggest the means and prepare the way by which knowledge may be extended, present evils be removed and others prevented. We feel that we would be unworthy of the position we hold if we did not believe in progress in all departments of knowledge. In all lines of academic investigation it is of the utmost importance that the investigator should be absolutely free to follow the indications of truth wherever they may lead. Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere we believe the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”