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The University of Wyoming officially commits itself to political neutrality

An individual dressed in black holds a protest sign that reads "I shouldn't have to be this afraid to be here. UW used to be somewhere I felt safe."
Jeff Victor
Wyoming Public Media
Silent protesters gathered in UW's Simpson Plaza Wednesday, Dec. 7. UW was criticized for not removing a man who had targeted an individual trans student with a sign in the student union. The university eventually did hand down a temporary ban, but the man sued UW and won his right to return

The University of Wyoming (UW) will stay politically neutral as it seeks to foster an environment where both freedom of expression and constructive dialogue can flourish.

That's according to the university's new statement of principles — a public document crafted over several months and ultimately endorsed by every corner of the campus community, from students to staff to faculty and administrators.

Adjunct professor Martha McCaughey helped craft the statement of principles alongside a working group she co-chaired. Now, at the behest of President Ed Seidel, she is coordinating efforts to put those principles into action.

"We don't think the University of Wyoming was in bad shape," McCaughey said. "The University of Wyoming is actually really fertile ground for the kind of added nutrients these principles and this initiative represent."

The working group recommended reexamining the Student Code of Conduct, offering specialized training for new students or employees, and even creating a physical Center for Free Expression. UW could take action on some or all of these recommendations in the coming months, but nothing is set in stone.

For now, the statement of principles stands as a guiding document for those efforts. The statement stresses that UW is committed to inclusivity for "a range of diverse backgrounds, ideas, and perspectives."

"As the state's flagship university, UW pursues excellence as a land-grant research institution dedicated to advancing knowledge and understanding for the public good," the statement reads. "Central to this mission is the University's nonpartisan and nonsectarian commitment to learning and creating knowledge with academic freedom and integrity, a respect for intellectual freedom and legal rights of equality and free expression, and the open, civil, and constructive exchange of ideas."

The statement draws inspiration from a wide range of sources, including the Code of the West, the 1967 Kalven Report on institutional neutrality and the 2014 Principles on Freedom of Expression from the University of Chicago.

McCaughey said the ultimate goal is to protect intellectual freedom and promote constructive dialogue. Institutional neutrality, she said, ensures that leadership at the highest levels will not squash dissenting opinions among students, faculty or others in the campus community.

"We also want to foster an academic intellectual climate where people learn to be critical, fair-minded, independent thinkers who can engage with people who have different views and to engage with them in ways that are fruitful, productive and intellectually stimulating," she said.

Campus free speech

The debates surrounding campus free speech are not new, but they've gotten significant national attention lately.

Earlier this week, the president of the University of Pennsylvania resigned following comments she made during a congressional hearing. The president had been asked whether student calls for genocide violated her school's code of conduct. She did not answer with a simple yes or no, instead arguing that the line between punishable speech and allowable speech was a "context-dependent decision." This response was roundly criticized, including by the governor of Pennsylvania, as inappropriate equivocation.

UW is no stranger to free speech controversies either. During the Civil Rights era, National Guardsmen, at the behest of Gov. Stanley Hathaway, came within seconds of gunning down peaceful student protesters on Prexy's Pasture.

More recently, in the spring of 2010, the university disinvited left-wing speaker Bill Ayers but ended up hosting him later that semester when a court ordered he be allowed on campus. In 2012, the university removed campus artwork that had offended state legislators. The sculpture, titled Carbon Sink, was an abstract criticism of the fossil fuel industry, and lawmakers threatened the university's funding in response, which prompted the artwork's removal. In 2017, students protested a campus visit by right-wing commentator Dennis Prager, but the event went off without a hitch.

One year ago this month, an anti-LGBTQ preacher was banned from tabling in the student union after using his table banner to identify and misgender an individual trans student. UW argued he had engaged in discriminatory harassment. The preacher sued UW on First Amendment grounds and won. He now once again regularly tables in the union.

The working group McCaughey co-chaired was proposed before the incident with the preacher, convened shortly after that incident and completed its work while that lawsuit played out in federal court. The working group has now disbanded, but some of its members continue to work on campus free speech issues.

Heterodox Academy at UW

McCaughey now works as director of campus engagement for Heterodox Academy, a national outfit that recently opened a chapter at the University of Wyoming.

Heterodox was co-founded by psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt, an academic who was worried about the underrepresentation of conservative views in university faculty departments. Heterodox Academy bills itself as a nonpartisan organization dedicated to improving campus culture across the country by fostering "open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement."

The organization grew out of concerns about the aforementioned lack of ideological diversity, about student protests against professors or invited speakers, and about hypersensitive university administrations — all topics that started to receive significant attention about a decade ago. Other observers have pushed back on the idea that there even is a free speech crisis on American campuses.

Heterodox's reach is spreading. It now has chapters, called "campus communities," at more than 50 colleges or universities across the country. The new chapter at UW is co-chaired by Catherine Johnson, an assistant lecturer specializing in critical and creative thinking.

Johnson said she's long been interested in figuring out how to foster conversation across political divides.

"I have always, especially as an adult, had a very contentious relationship with my own mother about politics," she said. "It was really, really challenging for our relationship and recent elections have not helped that at all. And if anything, it seems like more and more people are feeling this polarization. I just got really, really interested in: How do you talk across that difference?"

So Johnson got involved with Heterodox as an individual member first, then helped apply for and launch the UW chapter earlier this year after the working group had wrapped up its business.

"What I hope to do, as the co-chair of this campus community, is create spaces where (conversations between people who disagree) can happen — to facilitate meaningful, thoughtful, good faith conversation that really uses a lot of the tools of critical and creative thinking in order to have meaningful discussions."

The UW Heterodox chapter is in its infancy, but it's planning to host a forum in the coming months where students, staff and faculty can discuss the statement of principles, according to a UW news release.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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