The Hadley Union Building (HUB) at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pennsylvania
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Colleges, universities, and the faculty and administrators who staff them, have an essential duty: To cherish, to nourish, and to protect free speech and academic freedom, and to foster a love of these two great freedoms in the minds and hearts of students. Last week, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Professor Alison Downie failed in this duty, by seeking to punish a student for expressing his views on gender identities.
Lake Ingle, a religious studies major at IUP, has been barred from a course taught by Ms. Downie. The class, “Self, Sin, and Salvation,” is intended for religious studies majors, who are expected to dissect and discuss Christian perspectives on a range of topics. Mr. Ingle claims that he must complete the course successfully to satisfy a graduation requirement.
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So why is he barred from the class? If you ask Ms. Downie, it is for disrupting her class. If you ask Mr. Ingle, it is because he dared to express a dissenting opinion.
On Feb. 28, Mr. Ingle says the professor initiated a class discussion on sexism, “white male privilege,” and transgender and nonbinary sexual identity.
After watching a video of a lecture delivered by a Christian transgender woman, the professor opened the floor for discussion, offering women the opportunity to speak first. When no one raised her hand, Mr. Ingle shared his opinion. He said that he believes there are only two genders; he disputed the way in which transgender or nonbinary people identify themselves; and he stated that being forced by the professor to accept her perspective was a “misuse of intellectual power.”
The following day, March 1, Mr. Ingle says Ms. Downie handed him an Academic Integrity Board referral form, which included a summary of her accusations against him. Specifically, Ms. Downie charged Mr. Ingle with making a “disrespectful objection,” speaking out of turn, and with making “angry outbursts in response to being required to listen to a trans speaker.” She also claimed Mr. Ingle made “disrespectful references to the validity of trans identity and experience.”
During this meeting between Mr. Ingle and Ms. Downie, she also supplied him with what amounted to his mandated penance. He was instructed to write an apology to Ms. Downie for his “disrespectful behavior.” According to Ms. Downie’s instructions, the apology would explain the importance of an atmosphere of safety for an educational environment and respect for fellow students and the professor.
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The next day, March 2, Mr. Ingle received a letter from the IUP Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Timothy Moerland barring him from Ms. Downie’s class until the Academic Integrity Board decides his case, which it is scheduled to do on Monday.
Mr. Ingle elected to make his case public.
If Mr. Ingle’s classroom conduct was indeed out of line, it may well be appropriate to ask him to apologize for and refrain in the future from rude behavior. But he should not be punished, especially in a university, for his speech or thought, however unpopular either may be.
And no professor in an American university should use his or her power, or the weight of the university itself, to suppress a contrary point of view.
Educational institutions are supposed to promote contrary points of view.
In this instance, it is hard to see how IUP is fulfilling that mission.
A classroom debate that did not presuppose a “correct” line of thinking might have been an effective remedy to the discord aroused by Mr. Ingle’s views.
It appears that, instead, Ms. Downie may have sought to suppress a set of perspectives at odds with her own, and that when she found the student in question to be unexpectedly tenacious in the defense of his own views, she sought to silence and punish him.
This whole business leaves IUP in a morally compromised position. The fact that a student has been barred, even temporarily, from Ms. Downie’s course suggests that IUP’s support of free expression and its willingness to tolerate intellectual dissent are equivocal.
IUP must correct its error for the sake of its mission — for the sake of freedom of thought. It should restore Mr. Ingle to the course on “Self, Sin, and Salvation,” with the understanding that, as a member of the class, he has the right to present and defend his ideas, as well as an obligation to demonstrate respect for people holding different opinions.
We Americans, in general, need to renew our commitment to free inquiry and debate, as well as to tolerance and less humorlessness about our own views, all of which are subject to error and prejudice. What is happening to us as a people? We have nothing to fear and everything to gain from respectful disagreement.
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