Bruce and I are excited and humbled to be able to help support courses in free speech and expression at Bridgewater State University.
We live in a society known both for rampant disinformation, as well as information overload. Ideas, good and bad, fly freely across the internet and traditional media. Meanwhile, many complain cancel culture and political correctness are dangerously limiting free expression.
Americans still strongly support the rights granted under the First Amendment. A January poll by the Knight Foundation showed that roughly 90 percent of Americans agree that protecting free speech is an important part of American democracy, and that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions. Almost as many, 86 percent, believe free speech helps marginalized groups be heard, and 77 percent go so far as to agree that ideas that are deemed by some to be “bad” or “offensive” should still be heard, as this promotes healthy debate in society.
Problems begin to show when one digs a little deeper. The same study found that less than half of Americans, 45 percent, believe that free speech is secure these days. Ask about free speech on college campuses, and some fear that in American academia, freedom of speech is an endangered species.
In a July 25 piece in The Boston Globe, lawyer and journalist Harvey Silverglate, co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), put it plainly, “[I]t is no secret that academic freedom, a long revered and honored principle, has come under serious attack.”
He cites among many examples an October 2021 lecture cancelled by host institution MIT. The speaker, according to Mr. Silverglate, was “a scholar who had the temerity to criticize the campus mantra extolling diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Stories like this are legion across the nation.
As anyone can see, in 2022 even a cherished right like freedom of speech has become a contested and controversial topic.
BSU’s most generous benefactors, Bruce and Patricia Bartlett, have taken the cause of free speech to heart, and are providing meaningful support for this most basic of American rights.
“Bruce and I are excited and humbled to be able to help support courses in free speech and expression at Bridgewater State University,” Mrs. Bartlett said.
Indeed, the couple earlier this year established at BSU the Patricia Quinn, ’67, and Bruce, ’68, Bartlett Endowed Chair in Free Speech and Expression.
“We are so deeply grateful to Bruce and Pat for their love and commitment to their alma mater and to our country,” said President Clark when announcing the new chair. “They are proud Americans with a deep appreciation for and knowledge of the founding of our nation and the enduring values on which our democracy is built.”
Professor of Philosophy Dr. Aeon J. Skoble has been appointed as the inaugural Bartlett Endowed Chair in Free Speech and Expression. In his research, scholarship and teaching, Dr. Skoble has been a lucid and forceful exponent of the inherent value of free speech and its foundational role in democracy. As chair, he will focus on four areas: teaching, scholarship, campus engagement and outreach, and mentoring and advising.
The endowed chair is not the first time the Bartletts have sought to reinforce the most critical of lessons pertaining to our so-called American experiment. In December 2021, BSU announced the establishment of the Bartlett Endowed Professorship for Civic Education and Engagement, which is currently held by Dr. Jo Hoffman. The couple also addressed the importance of free speech in the pages of a 2020 textbook they were instrumental in developing, The Massachusetts Chronicles: The History of Massachusetts from Earliest Times to the Present Day. The statement the Bartletts included in the publication made the point that “free speech is the freedom that protects all the other freedoms … Free speech not only protects our liberties but also helps advance science and all aspects of our lives.”
The Bartletts point to historical examples where scientists, such as Galileo, as well as Drs. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, pioneers in rethinking our understanding of the cause of ulcers, were silenced or scorned.
“I fear today some universities would not even allow them to speak and would charge them with spreading disinformation,” Mrs. Bartlett said. “Fortunately, Marshall and Warren’s research finding that ulcers were caused by microbes, instead of the prevailing wisdom that they were caused by stress, were validated, and they went on to receive the 2005 Nobel Prize in physiology. However, in the interim period, how many patients suffered needlessly, especially those that had part of their stomachs removed?”
Promoting free speech is one thing, but measuring any resultant progress is another. Fortunately, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression now rates colleges and universities on their support and protection of free speech. Schools are rated green if they have the highest support, yellow signifies partial support, and red signifies institutions that do not do a good job of recognizing and guaranteeing First Amendment rights.
Even in blue-state Massachusetts, there are institutions that earn FIRE’s lowest grade of red, including Boston College, Boston University, Framingham State University and Northeastern University. BSU, along with several other universities, including Harvard and Salem State, is ranked as “yellow.” No Massachusetts college or university has yet earned a green rating.
The Bartletts are hoping that a renewed campuswide focus on the importance of the First Amendment will soon lift BSU into FIRE’s green category.
They are confident that members of the BSU community also will embrace this challenge.
“Thanks to the courage and foresight of President Fred Clark, Bridgewater State University may become the first university in Massachusetts to be rated in the top green tier for free speech and expression,” Mrs. Bartlett said. “Bruce and I hope FIRE will take notice of Bridgewater State University’s leadership in this important area.”