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Grand Valley State University's Beacon Since 1963, Allendale, MI
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Free speech and the business model of education at GVSU

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.



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