August 27, 2002
Office of the Chancellor
Phone: (919) 962-1365
As part of the National Press Club's "Afternoon Newsmaker" series, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Chancellor James Moeser discussed "A Tempest in a Textbook: Academic Freedom and the Qur'an Controversy" on August 27, 2002.
A Tempest in a Textbook: Academic Freedom and the Quran Controversy
Thank you, Peter (for the introduction).
I would also like to recognize someone from the University who is with me today . . . Richard Cole, dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and one of the countrys leading journalism educators.
Email to James_Moeser@unc.edu: ". . . Americans are not interested in foreign religions. Foreigners are, of course. Thanks for identifying UNC as an Islamic University."
Email: "Not everyones views are worth hearing. Muslims prove everyday that Islam is a religion of violence and terror . . ."
Email: "Islam needs [to be] destroyed, not taught."
Email: " . . . After reading this article from the Washington Post, I took you off the list of colleges I am considering. . . . May you find a packet of anthrax and a pipe bomb in your mailbox. Thank you."
Email: "I would like to know who the atheist idiot is that suggested the teaching of the Koran in some college there in your state. . . . You might as well teach the full course of anti-Americanism."
Email: "Congratulations on choosing to become the "Berkeley" of the East Coast. . . . I hope your enrollment plummets in the face of this idiotic decision."
Email: "Ive thought for a long time that Islam could not exist in harmony with anyone . . . but I was wrong. Itll fit just fine in the Peoples Republic of Chapel Hill."
And my all-time favorite:
Email: "You are doing the work of Satan, and you will surely perish in the lake of fire."
All of this because we asked our students to read a book.
Some of you know this story, but for those who do not, let me quickly lay out the sequence of events in this controversy.
For the past four years, as part of an effort to enrich the intellectual climate at Chapel Hill, we have asked all new freshmen and transfer students to take part in a summer reading program. They read an assigned book before they come to campus. Then, the day before classes begin, they attend small discussion sessions about the book. Our goal is to create an early expectation among students that they will think critically and discuss different points of view throughout their time at UNC.
This year, we evidently did the unthinkable . . . We selected "Approaching the Quran: The Early Revelations," by Michael Sells, a professor of religion at Haverford College.
The reading assignment prompted a federal lawsuit from the Family Policy Network, a Christian group that claimed that UNC was advocating Islam, and thus violating the establishment clause of the Constitution. The House of Representatives of the North Carolina General Assembly attached a proviso to the budget to disallow the use of state funds for any program or course that deals with a single religion unless all known religions are given equal treatment. This proviso would affect many offerings in the Department of Religious Studies, which is one of the oldest and largest religion departments in any American public university. And in response to this clear threat to academic freedom, the board of governors of the 16-campus University of North Carolina system failed in an initial vote to endorse a resolution in support of academic freedom. (Last week, the Board of Governors Committee on Education Planning, Policies and Programs unanimously approved a new motion reaffirming academic freedom.)
Throughout it all, the letters, emails and phone calls have poured in from across the country. Many, I am pleased to tell you, were supportive. But many had the flavor of those I read you earlier.
Then, on August 19, after the Family Policy Networks legal efforts to shut us down had failed, we went on with our discussion groups. We trusted our students desire to read, to think and to learn. (Pause.) And nothing terrible happened. If the intent of the program had been to convert students to Islam, it was a tragic failure. There were no known conversions. Carolinas religion remains basketball.
Did we know when we selected "Approaching the Quran" that it would be controversial? Yes.
Did we know it would literally fuel a new round of national debate about academic freedom? Not in our wildest imaginations.
But I am glad it did.
It is precisely in times like these in our history that it is important to reaffirm a universitys role in addressing controversial subjects.
One of the many newspaper headlines said it best: The Universitys summer reading program is about ideas, not indoctrination. The role of the university is to educate, not to advocate. But an idea especially an idea about religion, or an even more combustible mixture, religion and politics is dangerous only when we dont have the critical thinking to examine it.
We have a responsibility to students to provide an atmosphere in which they can deepen their sense of themselves and the complex, often contradictory, world around them. Thats what the Summer Reading Program is designed to do. We want to create an intellectual climate in which students themselves can come to their own conclusions and turn information into insight.
So what happened in those discussion sessions?
Well, I can tell you about the discussion group I led. For two hours, twenty-five first-year students spoke respectfully and articulately about a wide range of perspectives, value systems and beliefs. Students from Christian backgrounds compared notes with a Jewish student about a passage from "Approaching the Quran." That discussion was prompted in part by comparison of a passage from the Quran, one of the suras, with a psalm from the Bible. We agreed on the similarity of themes in both texts such as one omniscient God, the ephemeral nature of life and the concept of redemption. The students also found interesting differences. One student recounted criticisms of the summer reading assignment by her friends and family. She participated anyway, she said, because she wanted to be educated. For many of our students, the biggest question of the day seemed to be: "What was all the fuss about?"
I felt enormous pride in our students for their diligence in preparation for a non-credit reading assignment and discussion and for their unflappability in the face of national attention. I thought to myself: "These kids will be fine. This is a new generation of leaders." They are an enormous asset to North Carolina and to the other states they call home.
The University of North Carolina has long been credited with taking the sons and daughters of mill hands and farmers and preparing them to be leaders. This is our proud legacy. Ferrel Guillory, who heads UNCs Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, in a piece in last Sundays Raleigh News and Observer, points to John Egertons book, "Speak Now Against the Day," which is an account of the South in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Edgerton says in this book, "The single most glowing exception to broad-based mediocrity in the Southern academic world was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The University acquired a level of independence and quality that kept it in the front rank of public and private schools in the region."
It would be easy to misread the recent events in North Carolina and conclude that this is just another example of some backward Southern state, demonstrating its lack of tolerance for dissent or for progressive (and unpopular) ideas. Such a conclusion would badly miss the mark. To be sure, North Carolina, as Guillory points out in his News & Observer piece, has long been a state of internal conflicts and contradictions, a state that could simultaneously elect Jim Hunt and Jesse Helms. It is at the same time a conservative state and a modern progressive state. Some of Americas leading financial institutions are based in North Carolina, and our medical centers are among the nations best. Joining UNC-Chapel Hill is a great array of distinguished institutions of higher education in North Carolinaincluding Duke and N.C. State in the Triangle, Wake Forest, Davidson and several other universities in the UNC system.
Today, at Chapel Hill we still have students from very small towns, but we also have students from very sophisticated big-city schools in North Carolina, from the District of Columbia, from the other 49 states and 100 countries. But wherever they hail from, our students all come to Chapel Hill to learn about themselves and the world in an atmosphere of open, free and rigorous inquiry.
That atmosphere has served our students and the state of North Carolina exceedingly well. A leading public university fearlessly tackles subjects that make all of us a little uncomfortable. That's the only way well find answers to the really big issues facing our state, our nation and our world is to create an environment of unfettered inquiry in which students learn to think critically, ask tough questions and come to their own conclusions. That's what we want. We want our students to taste the excitement of encountering new ideas.
This year in the summer reading program, we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. Along the way, other important issues, including academic freedom, became a significant part of the story. And our students got to think about it and talk about it.
In short, we believed in our students. And they showed us that they have tremendous intellectual capacity. We put our trust completely in their desire to read, to think and to learn. Suppressing that trust, in any way, would diminish the educational experience of all students and it would diminish our nations ability to respond to the many challenges it will face in the future. Ensuring that trust and providing an environment in which difficult, relevant subjects may be discussed freely is the universitys very reason for existence.
In spite of the success of the program, I am acutely aware that many people did not support the book selected for our summer reading assignment or what we were trying to accomplish in the discussions. Reasonable people can disagree about the choice of the book, and they do both on campus and off campus. But we did not, and would not ever, take a public opinion poll before assigning a book, if we felt that a particular book is important to the discussion of a particular topic.
The criticism leveled against the Sells book is that it is an incomplete picture of Islam, that it presents only the early suras, not the later ones, which are often used as a pretext for violence and terrorism. There is some merit to this charge. Remember that the purpose of this program was not to present the complete picture of the faith of Islam in a single reading and a two hour discussion. That would be impossible.
Indeed, the reading itself and the discussions that have ensued raised many questions about Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. Where is the moderate Islamic voice? Is it being suppressed by the tide of Wahhabism that is dominant in some of the countries of the Middle East? These are good questions, and it is my hope that many of our students will be intrigued enough to pursue them with further study. That, after all, is the real purpose of the summer reading program to whet the appetite for learning and discovery.
The level of national controversy and media attention to this event could easily lead us to the false conclusion that we accomplished more than we did. This was only one book and one two-hour discussion, not for credit. In leading our students to a better understanding of the world, I think we may have moved one grain of sand. One grain of sand. But it was a start.
Now we hear that the Family Policy Network is at it again. Last week, the group attacked a reading assignment for new students at the University of Maryland, charging that in assigning "The Laramie Project" for Maryland students, the university is advocating a homosexual agenda. I wrote a note of support to President Dan Mote to extend my sympathy.
At least the FPN has good taste in universities. Throughout this controversy, a few of our critics have lumped UNC-Chapel Hill with the likes of Harvard and Berkeley.
Thats the kind of guilt by association that I can embrace.
Thank you for the opportunity to tell our story here today. I will be happy to answer questions.