My Turn: Do not tie purse strings to stifle dissent

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2003

When did this great nation turn into a place where, if you exercise your freedom of speech, you can be discriminated against? When did political correctness come to mean "don't say anything unless it's the majority view?"

Alaskans learned recently that if you don't keep your mouth shut, a politician might threaten to slash your budget. Ironically, America is trying to liberate people from a brutal dictator who doesn't tolerate dissent.

At a recent legislative hearing, Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage, requested a list of University of Alaska-affiliated people who had signed a petition opposing the Iraq war, and he didn't exactly want to put these folks on his Valentine's Day mailing list.

"I'd be interested in looking at those names of the faculty there," the senator said. "If you would send it to us, because they're down here asking for money as you speak."

After the hearing, Cowdery denied stifling Alaskans' free-speech rights, suggesting instead he was saying some faculty made too much money. So, when asked whether he was calling faculty outspoken loudmouths for opinions different from his, the senator waffled, saying he really just meant faculty are overpaid money-grubbers. Which of these insults don't you understand?

UA President Mark Hamilton, a retired Army general, did not cower. He asked whether "uniformity of thought" is necessary to secure funding for higher education in Alaska.

Sen. Cowdery, we admire citizens who serve the people in elected office, and you have every right to question the wisdom of other citizens' positions on public policy. Unfortunately, you took an extra step that no person in your position should contemplate in the world's greatest democracy.

Most people who heard you believe you were threatening people who don't think like you, and using the state budget to stifle dissent. We never signed a petition against this war, and we thankfully support our brave American soldiers, but we don't believe it's "unpatriotic" or "anti-troops" to oppose this war.

If we believe that America is a virtuous nation, then it must follow that our prestige comes from our constitutional liberties. That's why the university must be the "free marketplace of ideas" where society can debate, freely and vigorously, the great issues of the day. Politicians must not use the state's purse strings to stifle debate. That degrades and devalues higher education.

We can never build a great university if we look at the University of Alaska as merely a compendium of buildings and programs. Yes, it's true that many refer rightly to UA as the state's "economic engine," and annually we do turn out hundreds of qualified graduates equipped to grow the economy. But today's world changes so rapidly we cannot merely "train" students for jobs. Rather, we must educate students to think.

We must prepare university students to solve problems 10, 15 years or more down the road. Those critical-thinking skills are available only within an atmosphere of free and open debate in the search for truth.

In the early 1960s, the UA administration of former President William R. Wood fired two professors for opposing Project Chariot, a government scheme to create a deep-water harbor in our region of Alaska by detonating up to six thermonuclear bombs.

Three decades later in 1993, the university conferred honorary doctorates on these professors. The state Legislature, in a citation, said: "Gentlemen, you were right, and we, the people of Alaska, owe you a debt of gratitude for holding true to your principles."

We respectfully ask all Alaskans, including legislators, always to err on the side of free speech, for anything less could prove disastrous.

John Creed and Susan Andrews are UA professors at Chukchi campus in Kotzebue.

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