Response to Open Letter on Free Speech

January 4, 2019

Professor Richard Avramenko

Dear Dr., Avramenko:

I am pleased to respond to the statement titled “Open Letter to the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents on Free Speech,” recently posted on the web site of the UW Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy.

First let’s address the event that provoked your letter. I was not there but I believe that my description is accurate in the relevant details.  A pornographic movie actress was invited to speak at the university.  The event was attended by less than one hundred persons; I assume they were mostly students and professors.  This lady spoke, the audience listened, and if they asked questions, she was able to answer.  No one interrupted her, and the audience was not prevented from listening.  I understand that she was treated with a high level of attention, respect and courtesy. I conclude that the free speech policy of the UW System was upheld, and I am very satisfied with that aspect of the event.

The disciplinary warning to Dr. Gow was not provoked by this lady’s “status as an ex-porn ‘star’ and the sexual nature of her presentation” as stated in your open letter.  Rather it was caused by the chancellor’s personal involvement in the selection of a speaker and promotion of an event that was very offensive to many people in and outside of the university.  Public universities are very dependent on the support and goodwill of a public which includes members of the university community, alums, parents, local and state elected officials, business and industry, local and state-wide members of the public and others I may have omitted. Gaining and maintaining the goodwill of this public is a very important role attached to the chancellor’s position.  The chancellor is unique in this way: he has no peer in the university; he is the only one who speaks for the whole institution; no professor or student can do that. When, as in this case, the chancellor’s actions, opinions or positions are offensive to many in the public, they compromise his ability to perform these duties and harm the university’s public support.  For this reason, the chancellor received a warning that addressed a failure of judgment that impaired his ability to do a very important aspect of his work.

I conclude that chancellors like all other members of the university community are free to champion or advocate events, opinions or positions of their choice, regardless of how controversial they may be. But no one can expect to evade the consequences if the resulting notoriety impairs the performance of his or her duties.  To avoid misunderstanding I should add that neither professors nor students would be impacted by notoriety in the way that it impacts the chancellor of the university.  This is due to their different roles within the institution.

As you can surmise, I am writing on my own behalf as a Regent and not for the whole Board nor the management of the UW System.  I appreciate your concern for such an important policy and I thank you for the opportunity to respond.

Jose Manuel Delgado, Regent UW System