Commencement Speech Defends Academic Freedom

During the Fall 2022 commencement ceremonies, Francis Marion President Fred Carter asked attendees to recognize the important role that academic freedom plays in providing high-quality education. Carter’s remarks weigh in on the current political climate that has been increasingly hostile towards the rights of faculty members to determine what they teach. Below we share Dr. Carter’s remarks, which he delivered at the commencement for Education and the Liberal Arts on Saturday, December 17, 2022.

Distinguished Guests, Faculty, and Graduates,

Welcome to the fall commencement for the Class of 2022. It is a beautiful day and the perfect occasion to celebrate our new graduates. We have had two ceremonies this weekend. Last night we conferred degrees in Health Sciences and Business, and this morning we will confer degrees in Education and the Liberal Arts.

But let me begin me by describing this graduating class. Across the two ceremonies, 247 will graduate: 189 undergraduates and 58 graduate students. Among the undergraduates, 22 will graduate with Latin honors and 2 with university honors. The average age of this class is 26 years, with the youngest member 20 years old and the oldest 55. Two hundred thirty-seven of the 247 are from South Carolina–96%. Every graduation, I am delighted at the large number of in-state students educated here. And just a brief note to our legislators in attendance, this university continues to be the best educational investment in the state.

As the provost mentioned earlier, commencement is the most important event on the university calendar. It is a joyous occasion, but also a reverent one. It’s a time for celebrating your educational success at the same time that you anticipate future opportunities and maybe even a few challenges.

Every graduate here knows what you have accomplished. You don’t need me to stand here and tell you this. Now you just have to decide how you can most effectively apply it. This process could take you a few minutes, a few years, or even a few decades. Yeah, I know your parents groan at this. But listen to me–don’t be in a rush. One of the benefits of acquiring a university education is that it allows you to be more discerning about who you are, what you believe, and the life you’ll pursue. This is especially true in today’s society with its politically and socially charged undercurrents.

In just a few minutes, you will be holding a baccalaureate, a master’s, a specialist, or a doctoral diploma. Let me remind you, that degree, once earned, can never be taken away. In our society, your education defines you, not only as a person who has acquired knowledge but as one who will continue to pursue intellectual development throughout life. Over time, many graduates discover that the love of learning is even more gratifying than the acquisition of the knowledge itself. This learning business can be very addictive, you know. Just ask our friends on the faculty.

Of course, much of the success celebrated here today is derived from the wisdom and knowledge of this faculty. They have devoted their careers to university teaching, research, and service. They planned, developed, and taught your curriculum. They nurtured your intellectual and scholarly growth. And no one here takes greater pride in your accomplishments than they do–except, of course, your family. But I do want you to understand an important condition necessary for this faculty, or any faculty, to provide a responsible education. They must have the right to speak and teach freely without encumbrances or constraints. And you, our students, must have the ability to learn unconditionally.

…the quality of the education and the value of the degree is dependent upon professors who have the freedom to teach without intimidation, without threat, and without coercion.

Dr. Luther F. Carter, President, Francis Marion University

Just a couple of moments ago, I mentioned the socially and politically charged environment with which we all deal today. Well, universities across the country have been adversely affected by this over the past couple of years. We have faced pressures over curricular matters–what should or shouldn’t be taught, what instructional materials should be used, where academic responsibility should properly reside. Much of this pressure comes from special interest groups working at the national level and within various states, including our own. Their goal is simple. They want to influence and control that which is taught. But most of society understands that the quality of the education and the value of the degree is dependent upon professors who have the freedom to teach without intimidation, without threat, and without coercion.

Over the course of four years, you are subjected to a great many ideas and concepts–some with which you agree and some with which you don’t. During this period, your education–your higher education–is shaped from a multitude of different academic disciplines, taught by dozens of different professors, and influenced by the viewpoints of countless others, both within and outside the university. Ultimately, the knowledge you acquire is uniquely and distinctively yours.

This brings me to a final request. It goes to every graduate here, our other 26,000 alumni, and our many friends and supporters across the state and beyond.

Here it is:

Give this matter of academic freedom–for faculty and students–the attention it deserves. Join us in taking up the good fight. When you hear that pressure is applied to universities to influence what we can and cannot teach, help us by pushing back–hard. The quality of this country’s future leadership and the education of your children and grandchildren depends upon independent and unconstrained voices within its universities. If we ever lose that freedom, then we will have lost much of the essence of democracy… most especially its conscience.

While elected officials have an obligation to pass and implement laws ensuring justice and the public good, universities have no less of an obligation to teach openly and freely, without fear or favor. These legislative and educational processes work best when they are attentive to, and respectful of, one other.

But that is Monday’s agenda. This is a weekend for celebration.

Today belongs to our new graduates. Savor this education and treasure the degrees that you have earned. Use them for grand and noble ends. And don’t forget to thank your families.

Good luck and Godspeed.