Let freedom be cherished that learning may flourish.

​​​​​​​I'm a university president who's sick of the campus echo chamber

by John Petillo
Fox News
Students walk through campus at Washington University in St. Louis, MO
Students walk through campus at Washington University in St. Louis, MO on Wednesday, February 12, 2020. This semester, Chancellor Andrew Martin is co-teaching a class on campus free speech. The class comes at a time when hostility to conservative ideas on college campuses drives deeper the divide between Republicans and higher education, a development with profound implications for both universities and politics.  © (Photo by Nick Schnelle for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As historians, observers and keepers of truth, my peers in higher education and I are feeling a bit shell-shocked in the wake of recent national and international events that involve a political cookbook with lying as the main ingredient. This isn’t exclusively a Republican or Democrat issue – both parties feed us outright lies and misinformation. My job as the leader of a higher education institution is becoming harder as facts, civility, and reason fall victim to fear, manipulation, and ignorance.

Other college and university presidents tell me similar stories. They, too, worry about fallout from the assault on integrity, truth, and civility we are witnessing in our national discourse. We are sheltering through a storm of human creation that has the power to dramatically reshape our system of laws and governance, undermine decency, common sense and civilization and purposely amplify voices of hate, ignorance, malice, and greed. And it just might be up to colleges and universities to stop this assault and help change course.

What must colleges and universities do to mitigate these headwinds we’re facing? I firmly believe that it starts with overtly supporting facts, including science and research; providing society with opportunities for further education; and the fortitude to resist. Education itself is under siege by those who would ignore or rewrite history, limit discourse, ban books, restrict human liberties, and violate social justice. 

These attacks are being compounded by hypocritical religious justification, misguided nationalism and the pursuit of unbridled and irresponsible financial gain. As educators and leaders, we must fight fear with facts. Higher education remains a standard-bearer of history and truth, no matter how ugly or unpopular the reality is to some. We relish debate and discussion and focus on opening minds, ears, and eyes. Colleges and universities persist as safe havens for intellectual exchanges, voices of dissent and even unpopular opinions when backed by facts.

At Sacred Heart University, we foster these conversations in our classrooms, through panel discussions and colloquiums and our Human Journey Seminars: Great Books in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition that are part of our core curriculum and required of all students. Here, students engage in honest and often challenging discussions on the central and enduring questions of human existence and how these issues directly relate to their own lives and to the world in which they live.

Democracies decline or are extinguished when opposing voices, reason and truth are stifled. We must demand civility and honesty of our leaders, but we also need to get out of the business of higher ed becoming an echo chamber for a single political ideology. Our institutions must be bastions of free speech—not hate speech, but free speech that creates the intellectual friction necessary for students to learn. This means not shying away from alternative voices and ensuring that we have supported staff.

Institutions of higher learning are citadels, not fallout shelters. We offer hope and a safe environment for honest debate of facts and opinions. Through education, deliberation and reflection, we allow the next generations of leaders, parents and Americans to wrestle opinions and facts so that our society may continue to thrive and prosper. Otherwise, we’re simply cashing a check without purpose.