From the President
Illustration of John C. Bravman, President
Illustration: Joel Kimmel
Setting the Record Straight on Speaker Controversy
No one would dispute that we live in badly divided times. You see evidence daily through the lens of the impeachment hearings, the harsh rhetoric on the 2020 presidential campaign trail and politically charged social media posts. For that matter, you may see it around the family dinner table.
While deflecting controversy should perhaps be our goal at family gatherings, in the university setting we should be airing and discussing opinions that, well, may make us uncomfortable. And it should be a setting where robust debate on topical issues is welcomed and encouraged: Let free speech reign.

As an institution grounded in the liberal arts tradition, Bucknell emphasizes the importance of critical thinking and the ability to consider complex questions from various viewpoints. In this process, we must constantly recognize that individuals have vastly different life experiences and worldviews and strive to understand and bridge these differences through spirited yet respectful discussion. While some people on campus may disagree with the views of campus speakers, it is important to foster a range of ideas and to consider the role higher education can play in addressing controversial issues. That’s just what we do at Bucknell. And we do it well, presenting a wide range of speakers from diverse political and socio-economic perspectives.

But sometimes, it’s not easy to do the right thing. We saw that on Nov. 14 when Heather Mac Donald, the sometimes controversial Thomas W. Smith Fellow of the Manhattan Institute and a New York Times bestselling author, was invited to speak on campus by faculty affiliates of the Bucknell Program for American Leadership and Citizenship for their “Campus Politics and the Liberal Arts: 2019–20” speaker series. Her latest book, The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture, was the subject of her talk.

Her appearance led to grossly misleading headlines such as “Protests Erupt at Bucknell University Over Speech by Heather Mac Donald” from the conservative website Legal Insurrection. And shortly after her Bucknell talk, Mac Donald wrote an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal titled “Why Are College Students So Afraid of Me?” Her piece described student reactions to her appearances at Bucknell and another college. While she claimed that student protestors at the other campus disrupted her talk, no such thing occurred at Bucknell.

Rather than being victimized, Mac Donald was treated with complete respect during her visit. Preceding her talk, Bucknell held a dinner for her and a group of students and faculty, in the best tradition of a liberal arts education. Bucknell also provided logistical and financial support for her presence on campus, which clearly indicates our support for intellectual and viewpoint diversity, as well as dissent. We know the value of engaging with diverse and controversial ideas. This includes Mac Donald’s speech. Her op-ed failed to mention this fact.

The support we provide also extends to those who hold views counter to those expressed by campus speakers. As is their right under the First Amendment, students, faculty and others held a 20-minute protest in the Grove, across the street from where Mac Donald was speaking. About 50 students were involved in this event, which was registered with our events office, as our institutional procedures require.

Protestors followed all University guidelines, such as remaining at their designated gathering location. They made no attempt to disrupt Mac Donald’s appearance and left the area before her talk began. However, you would not know that from reading her opinion piece or from some of the other reports regarding her visit.

On the contrary, Mac Donald spoke to an attentive and respectful audience of students and others. Neither during her remarks nor during the question-and-answer period that followed did shouting or any other disruptive behavior occur. We know that she (and other conservative speakers) have faced significant, in-the-room hostility at other institutions. Sometimes this leads to cancellations of a talk or relocations to remote video studios. Some speakers have been disinvited by an institution in advance of a scheduled presentation to ensure the safety of a controversial speaker. None of those situations occurred at Bucknell.

As the small group of protestors moved peacefully from the Grove to an alternative session before Mac Donald’s talk began, some of the protestors chanted, “This is what democracy looks like.”

And they are exactly right.

This is what democracy looks like.

As I mentioned before, we live in divided times, and I suspect that this will not be the last time the media on the left or the right talks about Bucknell. However, when you read these pieces, I ask, on behalf of Bucknell, that you remember:

At Bucknell we support nonviolent civil disagreement.

At Bucknell we risk standing up for free speech with all of its complexities, while knowing that those who disagree with a particular position may be offended.

At Bucknell we encourage and channel debate so it will not become destructive, and we aspire to be the model for how society should move forward in exploring our most challenging topics.

Simply put, Heather Mac Donald spoke here. Some in our community dissented in a peaceful manner. Our students questioned and challenged views they opposed, but they also listened attentively and respectfully to her talk.

This is what an institution of higher learning should look like.

This is Bucknell.

Copy of John C. Bravman signature

John C. Bravman