Free speech and the business model of education at GVSU

Lizzy Balboa

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Last semester, GVSU administrators surveyed students to ask what the
university should aspire to be. In considering qualities and defining
missions, I never thought certain fundamental functions — such as
champion of free speech or free thought — were up for discussion. They
were “givens.”

But nothing is a given, and at times it becomes
necessary for students to re-earn and again justify the necessity of
these rights.

On Dec. 5, the Lanthorn ran “No More Billboards” an editorial responding to Carly Simpson’s article, “A public university run by private donations.”
As Simpson reported that 31 new rooms had been named after donors just
this year, the editorial questioned whether the increasing presence of
donor names on campus buildings hinders GVSU’s mission as a public
university.

We considered the implication of the strikingly
numerous “naming opportunities” — as Vice President for University
Development Karen Loth described them — and what they represent: a level
of administrative attachment to and association with donors that could
trump dedication to students. Our original thought was that perhaps in
the future, if the naming trend becomes even more excessive, academic
integrity and freedom could be sacrificed.

We were also concerned
that private companies might take a place of honor above academic
giants, such as our own deans and professors, who have committed their
lives to the university and our education.

This was never meant to
belittle the benevolence of donors or express ungratefulness; the
donors are, as the editorial states, obviously generous people without
whom the university could not have grown and succeeded to the extent
that it has — especially as government support fails to meet our needs.

Instead,
the purpose of the editorial was to consider the consequences of
increasing attachment to private entities on the part of the
administration. This attachment, again, would not in and of itself be a
bad thing. The Lanthorn only hypothesized that excessive attachment
might discourage students from speaking freely if that speech could
adversely affect university fundraising.

The negative and personal responses to that Dec. 5 editorial entirely proved our point.

Just
before exams began, I was contacted by three of GVSU’s top
administrators; one called my private cell phone, and the other two
co-wrote a message that was sent to my student email account and
published in the “Dec. 9
issue”:http://www.lanthorn.com/article/2014/01/responses-to-the-dec-5-editorial
. They had similar complaints.

In the two messages, the
administrators said the Lanthorn staff is clearly “ungrateful” to donors
as evidenced by its “disappointing” editorial, and it did a “disservice
to students” with its disrespect. They suggested that, perhaps because
of these offenses, my colleagues and I are undeserving of our
merit-based scholarships and should relinquish them “for reissuance to
students who would be more appreciative of our donors.” The three
administrators suggested further that the editors recant the message of
the editorial and that, rather than challenging policy regarding donors,
we write editorials thanking them ( “such as the Sept. 5 editorial
found here on
www.issuu.com/grandvalleylanthorn”:http://issuu.com/grandvalleylanthorn/docs/issue_5_7fe0464d6595b9
).

To recap: at our liberal arts university, which preaches free
and critical thought, there is at least one topic not up for honest
debate and discussion. And, if anyone disagrees with the views of a few
administrators, they should remain quiet and know that their dissent
renders them undeserving of their financial aid.

Now, based on the
administrative responses, I could take this opportunity to discuss the
freedom of the press. I could also deliver the age-old lecture about
freedom of speech and how public institutions — above all, universities —
should protect this principle. And I could also point out that the
administrators neglected to address any point made in the Dec. 5
editorial.

But this is not about freedom of the press. After all, I
was admonished not as editor-in-chief Lizzy Balboa, but as private
student Lizzy Balboa.

And this is not so much about freedom of
speech. The complaint was not about expression of ideas; it was about
the ideas, themselves — an “ungrateful” attitude.

And this is not
even so much about the December editorial. A new issue has arisen: the
business model of education appears to be valued over education, itself.

Based
on the, quite frankly, over-the-top reaction against the editorial, it
seems that some administrators have lost sight of one of the primary
responsibilities of a university — no less one that champions the
liberal arts. These few are beginning to put money and donor interest
above learning and student interest, and they are making personal calls
to discourage critical thinking for the sake of placating donors (who I
would like to think invested in our education because they believed in
its mission, not in its marketing opportunities).

They are
creating a system that discourages dissent, promotes consensus and
suggests that financial aid be contingent upon thoughtless allegiance to
themselves and the donors they have secured. Is this attitude conducive
to the critical thinking demanded of a liberal arts education? I think
not.

What we at the Lanthorn want to encourage and exemplify is
open debate. We want to inspire not only honest development of
individual opinion but courageous expression of the opinion — regardless
of whether or not we agree with it. In the spirit of this debate, I
encourage professors, staff and students to submit letters to the editor
to express their personal views on this matter or any other (free
speech, increased presence of donor names on campus, etc.).

In the
meantime, the Lanthorn staff and I will continue to express our
opinions and will not miss an opportunity to question authority for the
benefit of the students. Instead, we will promote honest discussion and
critical thinking.

So back to the original question: what should
GVSU aspire to be? It should be a marketplace of ideas — both popular
and unpopular — and an environment that encourages my fellow students
and me to retain our individual opinions. I want not to fear punishment
for exercising the skills that my professors work hard to inspire. And I
want the leaders of my university not to agree with everything I think,
but to defend valiantly my right to think it.