Click here to listen to the full version of this interview published on our podcast.
Editor’s Note: This interview took place in Jay Hartzell’s office on 8/5/21.
All too often today, many Americans take the 1st amendment for granted and, in many ways, we are starting to see it being restricted before our own eyes. However, it is never too late to reverse this trend of censorship that seemingly started on college campuses around the time “safe spaces” started appearing. Universities were once a place where you would grow as a person by interacting with other people who had different opinions and beliefs than you. This is what college campuses should continue to strive for.
UT has a history of freedom of speech that dates back to the very first student protest of Governor Ferguson in 1917 for his many actions against the school. Since that time, the university has been the setting for countless protests while also being a place of debate, most notably, the 2008 Democratic Primary Debate with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
In hopes of continuing the university’s relationship with protecting freedom of speech, I sat down with President Jay Hartzell to understand what the future of speech will look like at UT.
Morgan: “What do you believe freedom of speech looks like on a college campus?”
President Hartzell: “I think freedom of speech really should almost be inextricably linked from a college campus. In a well-functioning, great university setting, people should come to know they can talk about ideas, and people are culturally open to listening to those ideas. To debating things, to questioning things, to looking for evidence, or data or other ways to support ideas and are willing to respectfully be in that environment where they might be pushed, they might be challenged. They might not change their minds but that kind of open, intellectual conversation can happen.”
Morgan: “The University claims that ‘What Starts Here Changes The World’, but recently we have seen the world censoring and labeling things as hate speech. How could the University change this trend?”
President Hartzell: “I think in today’s environment where we have all seen challenges around what feels like a more polarized society where people feel or come across in many ways as being less open to ideas that aren’t consistent with theirs, I think Universities can be a place where we model a more productive way of having hard conversations around ideas. Whether it’s in the classroom or open forums or having different kinds of speakers come, we can show that it’s ok to have different views represented that one might not always agree with, that kind of setting is important. Ideally then when students get out and graduate, they’re used to being in an environment where not everybody has to perfectly agree but they also realize that may lead to a better decision, a better-formed argument, a better outcome.
Morgan: “How would the University respond to two groups protesting on the same issue, but different sides of the issue?”
President Hartzell: “The University has well-defined policies that go way back to our role as a public university in the state and that feeds in from the state to the university including the system and the regents. There are a bunch of things there all to support the idea that a group that wants to engage in a speech or a protest is all within the bounds of those rules. We have talked internally that sometimes there might be a communication gap or lack of understanding of what is ok for people to do the free speech rules and policies of the State of Texas and The University as a whole. So back to your question, I thought a lot about this as Dean of McCombs and now President. I think it is healthy to be more proactive and find different points of view and how to get them on campus. I haven’t thought about a side-by-side protest, but I thought about it back as Dean and taking stances around energy. We tried to get people with different points of view on the future of the energy business, all for the benefit of the students and the intellectual community. We brought them in and let them speak so that we had different representations of ideas all on our campus.”
Morgan: “So you might have someone from the oil business and another person from the wind business?”
President Hartzell: “ Yes, one of the examples we had, which received some press in favor and against the idea, was bringing in Alex Epstein who wrote The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. It was a pretty provocative argument that he made, that morally one can defend the idea of fossil fuels, but it all went well. We had people who didn’t agree with his thesis and people who did agree with his thesis, all in the audience. They were respectful, they asked questions, and some were upset that he came to campus. But I thought, upon reflection, that it was a good thing he came to campus.”
Morgan: “You mentioned the school’s speech codes, however, when discussing this topic with a professor, he felt that the rules were vague as to what they could speak about.”
President Hartzell: “That is interesting. The things that come to my mind are the principles of academic freedom, what we can do as academics in a classroom setting, and the overall ideas of freedom of speech. The freedom of speech part, everybody in the community has a right to speak freely. In the academic freedom context, of what does a faculty member have the ability to say under that certain protection around freedom, like around tenure for example, it is in things in the purview of their discipline, of their expertise, and of the course. I, as an economics professor, am probably not protected by academic freedom unless I take the right, perfect stance to talk about a certain religious topic. But I would have the ability to talk about that topic from a freedom of speech standpoint. However, I wouldn’t put it in a classroom setting and say I am now speaking as academic freedom about Judeo-Christian ideals.
Morgan: “Do you think a professor should have more freedom to go off-course if they need to?’
President Hartzell: “To be clear, I think they have the freedom to go off-course, but not in their course. In the last few years, it has come up where a professor has tweeted something or said something in class, and the thing we are trying to make sure we are all careful about is when am I telling you something as a student that is a part of that course in that setting. If I were a finance professor and I started to go off about religion in class., what does that put in the student’s mind, ‘am I going to be tested about the professor’s view about religion?’ that would step outside the box. But outside the classroom, as a citizen I should have the ability to speak about a religious question, it just needs to be clear that I am doing so in the context of an individual, not the course or something that would be on the final.”
Morgan: “What about when a professor mixes in their political views to a course?”
President Hartzell: “I can think about this in my own setting where I come to class and I have a certain view of the way the world works, most efficiently or optimally, and it might be hard to pull apart that from what might seem like a political question. This goes back to understanding that a faculty member’s expertise in that area should inform their opinion about things, but it should be because of their expertise and background, and knowledge in the field and the discipline. I can often look at a third party as a political statement, but that is where if it is in their discipline and their area, in my mind they have the ability to, under academic freedom, why they think this is true. It must fit in the box of what is the course and their field. But what is really tough is to pull apart where do someone’s own views possibly lead them to put more weight on certain parts of the evidence than others.”
Morgan: “Does the University’s mission to diversity include a diversity of thought and anti-censorship? Often we look at diversity as a physical aspect, but I feel diversity should include freedom of speech. We might have people who don’t look the same, but they think the same, and diversity might not exist if everyone thinks the same.”
President Hartzell: “To me, what would create the most dynamic, interesting, productive learning environment is to get people pushed and pulled and to have to hear and assess different points of view, perspectives, and backgrounds. To your point, there are a lot of parts of any particular person that may shape how they come into a conversation or an idea in a setting, but not all those may be observable or known. People might look at two people with the same gender and other main identities but they may be coming from two completely different points of view. I think it’s good for the university setting to have people with different points of view and have them feel comfortable being willing to talk about them and get them out in the open and work through them in a way that is productive and collegial.”
Morgan: “I understand that you recently held Free Speech week last year, would you consider this again?”
President Hartzell: “Yes, there is a national Free Speech week and we as a campus wanted to lean into that and promote things on campus that same week. Our hope was to not only do something that was helpful for the student and the community but also provides a signal to everybody looking at us that we are supportive of these ideas. So by leaning into national Free Speech week, it was a chance for us to plant a flag that this is an important part of what it means to be a higher education institution. I would hope to continue it this year, but I have not looked ahead enough to see when that week is again or crossed paths with the deans to hear how it went from their perspectives. The request to the colleges was to look at national Free Speech week and think about what makes sense for your setting and try to hold some events. I imagine we will do the same thing again this year.”
Morgan: “Would you consider time for debates to expose students to different issues or even have students debate each other?”
President Hartzell: “I think part of how a University can model and teach good ways of engaging in discourse and getting ideas out is to show that we can have these kinds of things in a debate-style format but from a good place. Not shouting over each other, not trying to shut each other down, let the ideas flow and then let the possibility that people might actually move a little.”
Morgan: “In the most recent FIRE report, UT was ranked second to last. What steps has the University taken to change this?”
President Hartzell: “A lot of the FIRE report is built on the perception of how we are and how people feel about the setting and the community. Do students feel like we care about free speech, do they feel like this is a place that supports it? To me, a lot of that speaks to a perception of marketing. We have a gap between where we are, both by statute and policy, and functionally, where we are perceived. With free speech in particular that is a challenge because if you don’t believe you are going to be supported when you speak, you might not speak. If the environment doesn’t encourage the right kind of speech then we don’t ever have those conversations. To me, the FIRE report is largely around a perception challenge or reputational challenge that I think is important for us to address because I think it will encourage more people to speak freely. National Free Speech week was not aimed at countering the FIRE report, but it was in the same spirit of helping us all talk about the issues, but I hope if we do this enough that people will start to realize it is good. In my mind, freedom of speech should not be a right or a left issue, it should be just a norm of how we think about modern society or higher education.”
Morgan: “One of the biggest issues FIRE had with the University was the Campus Climate Response Team, but this has been dismantled since.”
President Hartzell: “This came out of a court case that ruled against The University and then we reached a settlement to make some adjustments. The CCRT has been dismantled, but there are parts in there I think we should keep such as, “How do we know what the campus climate is?” “How do we keep abreast those types of things but without it being ‘so and so said something to me and now I wish you would go apprehend them.’ This never happened, but the perception was that because, in theory, people could reach this kind of conclusion, the presence of it might have chilled speech. There was no direct obvious evidence that we punished anyone under that mechanism. We are trying to take the parts we were trying to accomplish; what’s the feeling on campus, the feedback on how things are going.
Morgan: “Would the University be willing to adopt the Chicago statement or even adopt their own statement?”
President Hartzell: “The Chicago statement is interesting and is adopted in many cases by private schools who are adopting principles around free speech, largely in part because they are private schools. We as a public institution have many of the same features and rules and policies and statements, as a University, partly back to our heritage as a state university. In a technical way, we do not need to adopt it, since it is already here, but on the other hand, if you as a student are not aware of this, then maybe it is on us to do a better job of communicating these ideals so that you know we have many of the same characteristics people connect to in the Chicago statement are actually present here in our policies and procedures, but it is just not as well known.
Morgan: “Many conservative students and teachers often feel afraid to speak up from fear of backlash from their peers or other teachers, what would you say about this?”
President Hartzell: “Whenever I hear that, whether it is from one side of an issue or the other, especially in the area of higher education, it hurts my heart a little bit. It is also what bothers me about today’s society where I feel like there is more of that fear of if I say something that somebody doesn’t agree with, it might be viewed as anywhere from insensitive to being too political, that there might be some sort of ramification. This is back to why we are out for this effort to signal to campus that this is an important part of the University and any top university. The hope over time is that as we talk about that and have these conversations, that people will feel more comfortable talking about these issues or an issue and speaking their mind. Getting that culture right is important and there is a famous saying, ‘culture eats strategy for lunch.’ Around this topic, getting the cultural tones right is important so that people feel that they can speak and it will be ok.
Morgan: “Texas Tech and Texas A&M are both more conservative schools, but they offer largely the same courses as UT. However, UT is the only one that does not offer Agricultural degrees, which tend to bring in more rural and conservative students. Would UT consider adding this to diversify the culture of campus?”
President Hartzell: “ If you want to look for correlations between political views and various factors, one of the things that are correlated is urban versus rural. Austin is interesting because we are known as a blue bubble in a largely red state. The rural communities do have more of that element to them. I have not been a part of a conversation of whether we should do agricultural studies, but I do think it is important to us to recruit the whole state and make it look like the state. I think the idea of this being a big place where the very best and brightest from all over the state should want to come, is very important. Having the right mix of academic programs can help draw them, but I think it is also on us to tell the story that we want everyone to be here. There are all kinds of things where we realize there is an untapped need, demand from the students who want to learn more about something, and we try to craft a set of programs around it. I can tell you this, we are not going to work anything like an A&M into our school name.”
Morgan Register: Thank you for your time.
After this interview with President Hartzell, I am optimistic about the future of free speech and ideological diversity on campus. Where students in previous years may have felt unable to speak up about their political views or misguided on what they were able to say on campus, it appears that President Hartzell seeks to change this and encourage debate.
A University’s duty is to teach one how to think and not what to think. The best way to accomplish this is to allow the free-flowing of speech and ideas on campus. Free Speech Week is October 18-24 this year, which we hope UT will engage in once again. However, you should not restrict yourself to speaking your mind for just one week a year. You should speak freely every day. It is your right, after all. Who knows, you might just change a mind or two.