November 08, 2018
TEDxDirigo, a world-class platform that was founded to celebrate innovation and creativity in Maine, held its 8th annual event on the University of New England’s Portland Campus.
More than 600 people packed Innovation Hall to see 12 speakers give talks on dynamic topics, including social media, guns, racism and masculinity. UNE President James Herbert delivered a talk about colleges and universities serving as the ultimate marketplace of ideas.
To illustrate his point, President Herbert told a story about a controversial speaker, who had written books and essays that some found offensive, being invited to give a talk at a well-known American college. As part of the event, a professor who disagreed with his ideas would interview the speaker, and students would also have the opportunity to ask questions.
“This kind of event is at the heart of what a university is all about,” Herbert said during his talk. “Colleges and universities play several roles, but most fundamentally they are designed to be places where ideas are explored, discussed, and debated in the pursuit of truth.”
Rather than engage with the speaker and challenge his ideas, Herbert explained, the crowd of students erupted in jeers and refused to allow him to speak. At one point, things even turned violent, with the professor who had prepared questions for the speaker being thrown to ground and sustaining a concussion.
“By refusing to allow the speaker to present his ideas, to hear the professor challenge him, and to accept the invitation to dialogue with him directly, the students were depriving themselves of the ability to develop their mind muscles,” Herbert said. “They closed down the possibility of learning something new from the speaker, of perhaps clearing up misunderstandings, or even of strengthening their own counterarguments.”
Herbert said that in order to provide their students, and their communities, with opportunities to develop these mind muscles, colleges and universities must be committed to supporting a range of ideas and voices on their campuses. That is why at UNE, Herbert has encouraged events that invite speakers with a diverse range of viewpoints to speak.
“Universities are the only institution designed explicitly to encourage critical discourse around the full range of topics in the pursuit of truth. When universities abdicate their responsibility to encourage such discourse, they fail not only their students and faculty, but society as a whole.
As a university president, I believe I have a responsibility to do my part in reversing these trends, and to foster an ecosystem in which hard conversations can flourish in a spirit of mutual respect.”