Campus Carry, Fear, And The Meaning Of The University

08/15/2016 10:15 pm ET Updated Aug 16, 2017

For the first time in close to 20 years of university teaching and research, I find myself not particularly excited to begin the Fall semester. I have always enjoyed seeing the new students arrive on campus and the feeling of renewed intellectual energy that autumn brings. This year, however, is different due to the campus carry law that took effect in the State of Texas on August 1st. I don't really think that the law will influence much in terms of safety on campus; very few students are old enough to be licensed to carry and there never has been anything stopping someone from carrying a concealed weapon on campus in the past.

The real problem is with the atmosphere this law may create. What campus carry has accomplished so far is the generation of fear and anger among many faculty, staff, and students. This is truly an unfortunate development; for a university should be a safe haven for new ideas and civil debate and discussion of complex and difficult issues. A university is a place where people disagree, sometimes very emotionally, and argue about what is right and wrong, moral and immoral, factual and non-factual. This happens in classrooms, faculty offices, dining halls, and dorm rooms.

A university is not just a school where students go to learn skills for the workplace or become good critical thinkers. Those are important aspects of a university's function in society, as is research. But colleges and universities have a much more vital role in American society.

They help to protect freedom of expression and, thus, democracy itself.

A university provides a safe forum in which novel ideas can be created and challenged. This is why tenure exists--it protects professors from having administrators or politicians tell them what they can and cannot teach in the classroom. Tenure is the foundation that allows a university to be a place where ideas are freely and openly exchanged and discussed, even when those ideas run contrary to mainstream beliefs.

What worries and saddens me as the new academic year begins is that the campus carry law in Texas may silence, or at least significantly quiet, those exchanges, discussions, and debates. Fear has a tremendous power to mute those who might otherwise express controversial opinions and ideas. An environment governed or shaped by fear is anathema to free expression of thought and, thus, to the mission and purpose of a university.

Thomas Jefferson, writing about the University of Virginia he created, understood the aims of a university well. "This institution," noted Jefferson, "will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it."

Can we follow the truth wherever it may lead when there is a pervasive fear that someone might be carrying a weapon?

What worries me most about the coming semester is not that there may be students, staff, or faculty carrying guns. That has always been a possibility. Rather, it is that this law has generated an environment in which members of the university community may not feel the freedom and safety necessary to tolerate errors and combat those errors with reasoned, intense, and emotionally difficult discourse taking us wherever truth may pull our thoughts and actions.

The freedom to discuss and debate in safety allows people to identify mistaken ways of thinking and resist irrational representations of the world around us. It allows us to expand our concept of human rights or recognize that human actions have created a world with a rapidly changing climate, even when some would tell us otherwise. It encourages us to sharpen our view, analyze what we observe, and make our society a better place.

And those values--of reason and openness to rational debate and discussion of controversial ideas--must be treasured if a democracy is to flourish. If the campus carry law quiets that debate, then our society has lost a great deal.

Of course, those who resist change often don't like universities much, because the quest for knowledge inherently generates the potential for individuals to challenge fixed beliefs and, thus, for society as a whole to head in new directions. Learning makes you different; it makes you think and evaluate the world in new ways.

The meaning of the university centers on the creation of communities of curious people who challenge each other to think in ways that may have never occurred to them in the past. And through that process we become better people and better citizens, more capable of assessing the actions and words of our representatives and protecting ourselves from the ever-present specter of tyranny.