Discourse, Response, and Democracy | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Discourse, Response, and Democracy

To: The St. Lawrence Community
From: William L. Fox, President
Date: October 18, 2018
Subject: Discourse, Response, and Democracy

In recent days, a petition signed by many St. Lawrence alumni, followed by an open letter from dozens of current and retired faculty members, calls upon the university to rescind the honorary degree conferred in 2017 upon U.S. Senator Susan Collins ’75 owing to her vote in the confirmation process of Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

With profound respect for the strong views expressed in the petition, and the sincere feelings behind those views, I will defend the right and the opportunity of all Laurentians, all citizens (including the world citizens in our midst from other lands) to express opinions as an individual or in a group of individuals. That right is at the deepest core of St. Lawrence’s commitment to freedom of speech. It is the richest part of our treasure. Nothing has changed in the face of considerable public notice to affect that prima facie belief as the first article of faith in our discourse. Nothing more needs to be said about that anchor principle in our community of learning.

In 1944, in a world in pain and fracture, new citizens were being introduced to American democracy. On one such occasion, the welcoming remarks were delivered by a person whom historians have often said was the greatest federal judge never to have been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The words of Judge Learned Hand may already be familiar, but bear further contemplation: “the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to the earth unheeded.”

The University has had a request for our official response to petitioners who come from within its own loyal fellowship and circle of Laurentians. The University’s position remains clear, unequivocal, and unchanged from its first response about ten days ago: “Throughout its long history, St. Lawrence University has never rescinded any earned or honorary degree, and it has no intention of doing so in this situation. The university is an educational institution that is non-partisan and without political affiliations that would give preference to any political philosophy.”  Nothing more needs to be said on this specific question.

And yet, there is plenty more to talk about as we encourage our current and former students to participate in vital discussions on campus, in home communities, and, most importantly, to participate in the precious gift of the democratic process. I am very proud of our faculty and student organizations that have been highly energetic on campus to bring about voter registration. I have personally discussed with our students the sense of duty they ought to feel as a result of their academic experience here to become informed and counted. I believe their courses and conversations with each other are inspiring them to get involved, to study the issues intensely, develop arguments that hold water, and then express them, especially by casting a ballot.

Around the time Judge Learned Hand offered his reflections about American liberty to new citizens, The New Yorker writer E.B. White was asked to define democracy. His words are less formal, but also immortal: “It is the don’t in don’t shove… Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time…Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad.”

St. Lawrence is a place that is known to be grounded and kind. We don’t shove and seldom shout. It is a “forever home” to thousands who call it alma mater and who remember it as a place where one’s voice could be heard by another. I and the Board of Trustees are listening all the time. We have heard the differing voices of many from all sides of the day’s news. And yet, I am confident the same unadorned meaning of our academic and democratic principles continues to be shared by all. That’s the school song with the good words.