New U-M President Is a Mixed Bag on Free Speech

Dr. Santa Ono will be the 15th President of the University of Michigan, the Board of Regents announced Wednesday. He will inherit  a somewhat divided and distrustful campus given its political polarization and the unceremonious exit of its previous leader. Most college presidents pander to woke ideologues and pursue their partisan policies, which we most recently saw in interim president Mary Sue Coleman’s creation of an abortion-access task force. Conservatives at Michigan and other elite universities have come to harbor low expectations for their presidents. But we should never tolerate attacks on our right to free speech on campus. On that front, Ono is a mixed bag. In his previous position as president of the University of British Columbia (UBC), he touted his commitment to the First Amendment, but he did not always live up to it.

In 2017, Ono tweeted an  op-ed from the Wall Street Journal, echoing its title in saying, “Free speech is the basis of a true education.” On the surface, that statement appears to be a bland endorsement of freedom of expression, but the specific article he shared is more revealing. In the 2016 piece, University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer laments that “free speech is at risk at the very institution where it should be assured: the university.” What follows is a convincing argument for the importance of college campuses committing to a policy of open intellectual discourse, but its author’s actions as the head of an elite school are more significant. In 2014, Zimmer commissioned a Committee on Freedom of Expression for his university. The result was the Chicago Principles, the gold standard for free speech in the academy, drawing heavily upon Chicago’s own history. “The University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed,” the committee wrote in its report, also putting the onus on students not to disrupt unpopular speakers. Since their articulation, 87 other colleges, including Princeton, Purdue, and Michigan State, have adopted the principles. Michigan is not on the list, nor is UBC. Ono is very familiar with Chicago, having completed his undergraduate degree there. Though he attended the school well before Zimmer adopted the Chicago Principles, he is no doubt familiar with them, and he spent a significant period of his life in a culture of free speech.

There is cause for concern, however, because, although Ono may be receptive to the Chicago Principles, he abandoned them on several occasions at British Columbia. Although he was accused in 2019 of indulging in “free speech absolutism” by UBC’s Students Against Bigotry, he canceled a lecture from journalist Andy Ngo who was invited by the university’s Free Speech Club. An administrator told the group that the school had a “concern about the safety and security of our campus community” without naming any specific concern. After the cancellation, many in the campus community demanded that Ono restrict the school’s Statement on Academic Freedom, which protects “free and full discussion, not only of ideas that are safe and accepted, but of those which may be unpopular or even abhorrent.” In response, he updated the university’s approach to controversial speaker bookings so that the university would “clearly identify the level of risk for these events” and an independent legal expert would review all reservations through the lens of the British Columbia Human Rights Code. In Ono’s words, the code “prohibits publications that are discriminatory or are likely to expose a group to hatred or contempt on the basis of factors such as race, colour, place of origin, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity.” While these types of safety and civil rights codes sound unobjectionable, their vague language is often used to shut down unpopular mainstream speakers. In 2021, UBC canceled a panel where filmmaker Lauren Southern was to appear, again citing safety concerns. Southern can be a bit of a kook, but she is far from a bigot. Even if she were, the university would not have been justified in bowing to violent mobs who would disrupt her speech. Canceling Ngo is especially concerning. He has done valuable work documenting the activities of radicals in ANTIFA, a group nominally opposed to fascism but happy to use the violent tactics of authoritarians. Ngo is revered among conservatives, and, if he is too extreme to host at a college campus, one would be hard pressed to name someone who is not. In canceling Southern and Ngo, Ono exhibited a tendency to succumb to the heckler’s veto, which is inappropriate for the president of any university.

At the same time, any speech-based concerns over Ono’s time at UBC have an important caveat: the duties of a Canadian university president are different from those of an American university president. The primary reason why is that the two countries have vastly different levels of appreciation for free speech. While America has robust protections thanks to the First Amendment, a Canadian who “willfully promotes hatred” (whatever that means) with statements that are not “relevant to any subject of public interest” can receive two years in jail. No matter how much we may dislike the system in which Ono was working, he had to follow its conventions. It is entirely possible that UBC’s free speech debacles are more of an indictment on Canada than they are on Ono.

This question remains open, and Ono should answer it before officially taking office. All university presidents have a moral obligation to protect the academic freedom of their students and faculty. Ono failed to fulfill his on multiple occasions in his previous office. He needs to prove to Wolverines that those were the fault of the laws he had to follow, not his own preferences. Adopting the Chicago Principles would be a good start.

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About Charles Hilu

Charles Hilu was editor in chief of the Michigan Review. He currently cowrites the Dispatch Politics newsletter.