Lehigh President Joseph Helble made a guest appearance at the first Faculty Senate meeting last month to propose the adoption of principles encouraging and respecting free expression on campus.
“I haven’t seen any movements to shut down free expression,” Helble said. “But we don’t have any written principles about respecting free expression.”
In asking the faculty to decide how to best support Lehigh’s diverse range of views, Helble referenced the Chicago Principles — a set of principles written by The University of Chicago and adopted by colleges across the country — as guidelines to promote free expression on campus.
He asked the Senate to make a decision based on three choices: to do nothing — in alignment with the sentiment that Lehigh doesn’t need a written statement of free expression, adopt the Chicago Principles with an added preamble relating to Lehigh, or move forward with the process of having Lehigh write and adopt its own set of principles via a new committee.
This committee would be entirely new and include stakeholders beyond faculty members.
“One of the real questions is, ‘Have we already covered this in other spaces?’ and ‘Do we need to add additional language around this or have we made our values and principles clear already?’” English professor Jenna Lay said as a representative for the College of Arts and Sciences. “The work that this group will do delves into that question.”
This committee would post a first draft online to receive feedback from the community and revise it to finalize a version of Lehigh’s free expression principles.
Faculty members responded to the proposal with questions and feedback, such as the reasoning for free expression at Lehigh being addressed now.
Helbe said the idea wasn’t a response to controversy, but a way to establish that students can openly express themselves if anything comes up in the future: a proactive plan instead of a reactive one.
“If open, honest and respectful discussion on challenging subjects can not occur on university campuses, where can it?” Helble said in a video to the Lehigh community. “Our goal through this work will be to provide a common understanding.”
International relations professor Kevin Narizny vocalized support for the set of principles.
He said students have voiced fears about discussing important political issues because they fear being pushed out of their peer group or being judged poorly by professors for saying things on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
President Helble said a substantial part of the Lehigh community is the ability to intentionally learn from one another.
“Without having a statement of principles (on free expression), we aren’t fully encouraging students to push boundaries,” Helble said in the meeting.
In relation to getting feedback from the Lehigh student body, Student Senate President Victoria Drzymala said Student Senate represents a wide variety of students but not everyone.
“I think the Student Senate is a good place to start in terms of getting student feedback, but if this is something that goes through, it may be beneficial to open it up to some forums,” Drzymala said.
The Faculty Senate voiced feedback by referencing principles of an equitable community and examining the history of free expression at Lehigh, as well.
“Whether (students) are speaking in their classroom, clubs or friend groups, they are communicating with one another and with faculty and staff all the time,” Lay said. “So, it’s really crucial that we get students’ perspectives.”