Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York University professor Ulrich Baer, and Amherst University professor Stefan Bradley spoke on free speech in the classroom and institutional racism on college campuses at a panel on Tuesday, April 19, at Richardson Auditorium.
The event, titled “Race, Speech, and the University,” was sponsored by the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, the Office of Wintersession and Campus Engagement, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion for the Graduate School, the Office of Religious Life, and the Campus Conversations Series. Rahsaan Harris ’95, CEO of the Citizens Committee for New York City (CitizensNYC), moderated the conversation.
Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New York Times and a journalism professor at Howard University. She is best-known for creating The 1619 Project, a project that centers the story of America’s founding on its history of racism and slavery. The project has been the subject of conservative state legislation, with some laws targeting teachers who have incorporated the project into their curricula.
Baer is a professor at New York University and author of “What Snowflakes Get Right: Free Speech, Truth, and Equality on Campus.” Bradley teaches at Amherst College and wrote the book “Upending the Ivory Tower: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Ivy League.”
At the event, the panelists began with their thoughts on free speech and educational institutions.
Baer argued that free speech must not interfere with equality in the classroom.
“We want as much speech as possible, but we also want the equal participation of all members of the community,” he said. “When the speech conflicts with this, this principle of the equality of people who can participate to shape this experience, this endeavor of learning, teaching, research, et cetera., then you have a challenge.”
In a similar vein, Hannah-Jones discussed the tensions that can emerge on campuses around questions of speech.
“Snowflake or not, if you come to the university to be comforted, I feel like you’re in the wrong place,” she said. “But you also shouldn’t have to be proving basic humanity, defending basic humanity, defending your basic right to be there. But in a free society, these things will always exist in tension, they will always be at odds, and there’s not ever going to be one definition of what is acceptable in all kinds of occupations.”
The panelists also discussed how diversity is imperative for the production of knowledge in the university community.
“If we’re talking about the university, we need universal knowledge and you need different people around to create that universal knowledge,” Bradley said. “But there’s something more important than that, that is this idea of diversifying the purveyors of knowledge, so you have to have Carl Fields come here to help educate, you have to have black professors to come and educate, and then finally, the diversification of the knowledge itself.”
Hannah-Jones recounted that she did not encounter much diversity in what she learned in school and how she rarely learned about Black history or read Black writers. That gap in her own early formal education was part of what motivated her to start The 1619 Project.
“Why aren’t we learning about them, and then demand to see ourselves in the story? That was very uncomfortable to my white teachers,” she added, “just either they weren’t taught it, they didn’t think it was that interesting, and it was uncomfortable to my classmates.”
“So The 1619 Project is kind of pushing that discomfort out to the masses, right?,” she continued. “This idea that you’re actually not the heroes of the story or the only heroes of the story, that you can tell the story about America that de-centers white people in every way, is very frightening to people for whom their entire identity has been wrapped up in their exceptionalism.”
Bradley mentioned how Princeton students used their rights to free speech to protest the war in Vietnam and advocate for divestment from apartheid South Africa.
“I think that there’s a wonderful legacy and something for the people sitting in this room today that Black students, white co-conspirators, and comrades decided that they were going to do something about these major issues and they didn’t ask permission and they tested the boundaries of free speech with every protest they did,” he said.
“That’s what college students are supposed to do, that’s the function of it all, and I’m not supposed to say that because I’m a professor, but that's the function, these places don’t change unless you agitate,” Bradley continued.
The event ended with questions from the audience. Alan Gutierrez ’25 asked Hannah-Jones for advice about how to navigate the University when he does not always feel like he belongs due to his identities.
“We know that institutions were not built for us, we know that, and I don’t know that they ever will be, but you absolutely belong here if you want to be here,” Hannah-Jones responded. ”What I did to survive was I found my community and I hope you have found one or two or more than one and that that is what gives you the strength to then go on and deal with everything else that you have to deal with here.”
Gutierrez later told the ‘Prince’ he appreciated Hannah-Jones’s response to his question.
“I’d say that my main takeaways were really about a student’s role in the University and how we really shape the University and really kind of the power that we have, in being able to shape the discourse,” he said in an interview with the ‘Prince.’ “It can come from the bottom up rather than from the top down, so rather than the administration fixing everything, students really have a power and a role.”
In an email to the ‘Prince’ after the event, Baer wrote that he was “very inspired by the students’ questions and interest.”
“I think the panel was careful to explain how the overall goal in considering the role of robust and even uncomfortable exchange of ideas can be balanced with the goal of truly allowing all students to contribute to the joint enterprise of learning,” he wrote.
Bradley hopes students who attended the talk learned about the importance of using their voice to enact change.
“Universities and colleges are communities, and students are the most powerful members. They should exercise that power,” he wrote. “It is the duty of young people to determine if the status quo works for them. If it doesn’t, then it’s the obligation of students to change things by (at the very least) making their voices heard.”
Carson Maconga ’22, another student who attended the event, told the ‘Prince’ that he found the panel “super insightful.”
“I think the reframing about these kinds of free speech and race issues around how do you ensure that everyone has their full humanity and has that equality in the classroom is something that I think is really additive to our free speech debate on campus,” he said.
The event was held on Tuesday, April 19 from 6:00–7:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium to “celebrate 50 years of inclusion at Princeton and commemorate the founding of Princeton’s Third World Center (now Carl A. Fields Center) and Women’s Center in 1971.”
Hannah-Jones did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
Naomi Hess is a news editor emerita who focuses on university policy and alumni affairs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @NaomiHess17.