Campus News

President Eli Capilouto: Ideas matter

The following remarks were made by President Eli Capilouto at the February University of Kentucky Board of Trustees meeting.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 21, 2023) — The debate was raging.

In January 1922, legislation was introduced to ban the teaching of evolution in schools, along with agnosticism and atheism.

Pastors and politicians weighed in. Letters were written. Op-eds were placed; speeches made.

One of those in the fray was our third president, Frank McVey. As a matter of science, he argued, the “university was bound to teach evolution ‘since all the natural sciences are based upon it.’” But even more important, he wrote, “evolution is development; it is change, and every man knows that development and change are going on all the time.”

Evolution began as a theory, an idea – if you could not teach it or study it you could neither prove or disprove it through debate and the skepticism typical on a college campus. Loss of freedom of speech and academic freedom is a loss of thought and breakthroughs are built on the graveyard of what “was a good idea.”

The bill to ban evolution’s teaching failed in the state House; a few days later it went down by only one vote in the Senate.

Such moments are part of our legacy. Often moving imperfectly through an imperfect world, this university has sought to advance Kentucky in everything that we do.

And we do that best when our campus is fueled by open and vigorous debate … a deep commitment to inquiry wherever it takes us … and the understanding that everyone – no matter who they are, where they come from, or what they believe – is welcome.

Ideas matter.

Preserving the right, a century ago, for scientists to rigorously examine the theory of evolution sowed the seeds for the genetically based life-saving cancer treatments delivered today just down the street from us at the Markey Cancer Center.

This issue – of truly creating a marketplace of ideas on our campus – tests our commitment to being a community where everyone belongs.

We have a campus, for example, where the Office of LBGTQ+ Resources is yards away from this very room, where a guest speaker recently criticized such diversity and inclusion efforts.

Our campus can — and must — have room for ideas that seem to be in clear tension with each other.

It is a paradox: it is the very freedom to express ideas — boldly, loudly — that ensures we have the capacity to be open to everyone, no matter who they are or what they believe.

In an important sense, McVey’s concern more than a century ago over the teaching of the theory of evolution is the same debate in our world today over the evolution of ideas and speech.

As a university, how we engage each other is critical to our capacity to create community. And creating community on this campus is essential to advancing Kentucky.

As we continue these discussions in the months ahead, I offer a couple of thoughts about the intersection of ideas and speech.

First, we must realize that the answer is often found in the commitment to continually, humbly and patiently asking the questions. Our first Black student, Lyman T. Johnson, said, “I lived half of my life in the darkness and half in the light.”

Years after his historic lawsuit that integrated UK, Johnson continued to receive death threats for challenging us and holding us accountable as Kentucky’s university.

And, it is not lost on me that much of the time he spent at our university was shadowed by that darkness.

We played a role in that darkness...but, true to our legacy, we vowed to get better.

Thirty years later, Lyman T. Johnson returned to campus – the same campus where 17 crosses were burned the summer we integrated – so we could bestow upon him an honorary doctorate degree.

He recalled how, of the four honorees for that ceremony, he was surprised to be recognized first with a long speech from President Singletary about his accomplishments and contributions. And later, during an intimate dinner at Maxwell Place, President Singletary told Johnson again and again how honored the university was to award him his honorary degree.  

In his memoirs, when reflecting on this experience, Johnson wrote, “It’s remarkable that so much has changed in the space of 30 years — from the time I forced my way into the university on a court order to the day the university gave me an honorary degree.”

Johnson kept pushing us so that we would instead be part of the light. He demanded an answer for why we were not living up to our expectations.

We must realize that the conflict over speech, identity and ideas is part of who we are. We discover, improve and advance by questioning what we know and what we do not yet understand. Often, that means confronting ideas that are discomfiting.

We must recognize that others in our community have very different backgrounds and beliefs. We must learn that differences over fundamental issues do not threaten but give us opportunities to thrive.

Second, free speech and academic freedom are important values at our institution. Many universities are wrestling with these same questions. We are not unique in that regard. But we must accept the charge to fully understand these values and how we honor them in and out of our classrooms.

At MIT, a report on these issues makes the point that the constitutional protections around speech are premised on the idea that the government is not to subject its views or codes on people.

Our Commonwealth and our campus have also explicitly codified these protections for speech, underscoring their importance as principles and emphasizing our responsibility to honor them as a public space.

While there is wide latitude on our campus to say almost anything under certain conditions, this doesn’t mean that anything goes.

When someone tells a member of our community that they don’t belong here, simply because of what they believe, who they are, or where they come from, we will push back, speak out and invoke our institutional values while respecting the speaker’s right to be wrong.  

At the same time, we should oppose interference with the expression of ideas and flow of speech.

Similarly, academic freedom – a concept sacred to who we are as a university – is a steadfast commitment to protecting everyone, but particularly faculty. They explore and promote ideas on which they have developed expertise and knowledge.

That knowledge is used to educate and prepare our students.

In short, our faculty – and all of us in this community – are not here to tell students what to think.

A favorite quote of mine is from Plutarch: “the brain is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”

We are here to help them discover how to think, so that they might navigate a complex world successfully.

A professor has every right, and perhaps a responsibility, to acknowledge a traumatic event that occurs outside the classroom and impacts our community. After all, what makes us special is that we are a community that cares.

A professor has every right to espouse their own theories or views if those ideas are germane to the subject matter.

But that same professor should leave room for students to disagree with them. We don’t ask students to repudiate their own beliefs inside the classroom. Indeed, the students have every right to question or disagree.

There is a difference between a lectern for learning and a pulpit for proselyting. The University’s mission is education, not indoctrination.

Our faculty and this community, I believe, understand and honor this idea. I’ve seen it up close.

Fidelity to principles of speech and the expression of ideas – and the laws and regulations that protect it – is crucial to who we are and what we do.

But, so too, is our responsibility to honor our values that aim to ensure we are a welcoming and inclusive campus for everyone who seeks to find a home here.

We all have a right to feel like we belong. Our job is to create and sustain such a community.

Recently, the UK International Center hosted a reception for more than a dozen students from Afghanistan who are now studying at UK.

They are the beneficiaries of a bipartisan effort in the Kentucky legislature last year to fund scholarships for these displaced students. Their studies at the American University in Kabul were disrupted and, by 2021, they had fled to other countries.

Now, because of the efforts of policymakers, they are studying at UK. There was a realization among policymakers that our common humanity is so much more powerful than divisions sown by war, hate or fear.

As we have done before, we must find ways to lead in this space too, based on the understanding of, and devotion to, the idea that we are one community, welcome to everyone.

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.