SMU has been in the news in the last week, and not especially in a favorable light. The controversy began when the university announced a plan to move a student display honoring the victims of 9/11 away from an area near Dallas Hall. The move included other student displays, but it was the 9/11 display that drew the headlines. Dallas Hall is the most prominent and recognizable building on the campus. In the initial report on the move, The Dallas Morning News reported that a policy by the university from July had determined that students had a right to be free of “messages that are triggering, harmful or harassing.” The paper also reported that the policy had been changed, but it was still the university’s intent to move student displays to an area other than near Dallas Hall. SMU immediately issued a statement of apology, noting that the display was an “important campus event” honoring the victims of 9/11. The display has been erected each year since 2010 by the Young Americans for Freedom, a student group on the SMU campus.
Other coverage followed in the Dallas paper as well as some national press, including Fox News. Among the other coverage was a column by Morning News writer Jacquielynn Floyd taking the university to task for the politically charged language of “triggering” mechanisms that has been an issue on several notably liberal campuses. Floyd correctly described the term as “idiotic.” Other coverage reported an exchange of correspondence between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and SMU President R. Gerald Turner. Abbott encouraged the university to continue to allow the display in its place of prominence next to Dallas Hall. Even with the initial apology, it was still the university’s intent to move the various student displays away from Dallas Hall. The university’s position on moving the displays lasted for a week. Yesterday, the story finally came full circle with SMU agreeing to allow the 9/11 display in the same place where it has been. I don’t believe the initial communication to students intended to link “triggering” messages directly with the students’ 9/11 exhibit, but the damage was done.
In a letter to the SMU community dated Aug. 10, the day after the agreement, President Turner outlined the new agreement and acknowledged the mistake in communicating a policy that had not been approved. He said in the letter the error was one “we deeply regret.”
In putting this matter to rest, I’d like to make three points.
- It could have been defensible to move all such displays away from the Dallas Hall area for the purpose of maintaining access to space that is the most visible and arguably most important on the campus. However, when the students’ 9/11 display became the focal point of the story, SMU was an automatic public relations loser. Students honoring 9/11 victims by putting 3,000 flags on prominent lawn space? Why would anyone pick that fight? It was an easy target for a conservative governor to make his points, which he did. It was also easy to gather sympathy for deserving students engaging in a sincere and honorable project.
- The Morning News was not entirely correct in reporting that the language on “triggering” mechanisms was policy adopted in July. In fairness to the newspaper, the message apparently was communicated as policy. It was language that was communicated to students in error, as we now know. The university, in its apology, said that the language had never been through the approval process. What seems to have happened is that the language had been on some document and ended up being transmitted to the student groups. It was error compounded by error, and embarrassingly so. That the 9/11 display could ever have even been tangentially associated as a “trigger” was absurd and insulting to students and the public. In his letter, President Turner made clear that the decision to move the displays, including the 9/11 display, was in no way connected to the language that was used. The language smacks of a politically correct dogma that has no place on a university campus. I expressed myself on this point as it related to university life in an op-ed piece published online by the Morning News almost two years ago and in other items on this blog.
- I have written this before and will do so again. SMU has an excellent record of free speech and open intellectual inquiry, including academic freedom. Beyond the embarrassment of the current case, let’s hope it’s an instructive moment for the public as well as students and faculty. Many seem to believe that because “Methodist” is a part of the university’s name, there are inherent limits on freedom of expression. Most of our students and faculty aren’t Methodists, and one of the strengths of SMU is that we are a campus without religious requirements of any kind and open to all faiths. I am a Methodist, and the tradition of openness to experience and intellectual freedom was established by John Wesley, an Oxford graduate, in the foundation of Methodism in the late 18th Century. That tradition has carried through in the number of excellent universities established by Methodists in the United States. Some of those universities still have Methodist affiliations, and some don’t. There is a famous story, frequently told and written by the late SMU Professor Emeritus Marshall Terry, of a major controversy in the 1950s when a socialist was invited by students to speak on campus. President Willis Tate found out about the invitation by reading The Daily Campus, the student newspaper. Howls of protest emerged from the conservative business community in Dallas, including a columnist in the Morning News who labeled Tate a “pinko.” Tate stood firm, and in the retelling by Terry said, “As long as discourse is civil on this campus, there will be free speech.” The speech occurred without incident. Finally, Jacquiellyn Floyd noted in her column that it was the students, both conservative and liberal, who had come forward and in a statement expressed strong support for free speech and that there was no right to be “shielded” from ideas. The students put it brilliantly. And it was Kylie Madry, the editor in chief of The Daily Campus, who was out front on the story from the beginning. Her original story on Tuesday, Aug. 1, drew a link from The Washington Post.
In closing, I send out a special note of appreciation to the leaders of the various student groups who spoke up for freedom of expression. As I’ve noted to several others, it could be we’re doing something right in the classrooms at SMU.