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Michael Keck: New Kentucky university aims to be beacon for critical thinking and civil discourse

“…[W]ithout a vibrant commitment to free and open inquiry, a university ceases to be a university.”
This commonsense — yet sadly and vexingly controversial — statement is a key tenet of the University of Chicago’s 2014 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, commonly known as the “Chicago Statement.”

Michael Keck

The fact that, to date, fewer than 80 of the United States’ 4,000+ postsecondary institutions have officially signed onto this fundamental statement of open inquiry regrettably speaks volumes about the overall state of higher education today.
From Portland, Oregon to Kenosha, Wisconsin to Washington, D.C., we have witnessed clearly over the past year the consequences of a society increasingly unequipped to engage in civil discourse and debate. And much of that blame falls squarely upon the shoulders of our nation’s colleges and universities, the majority of whom have failed to teach their students how to have conversations with those whom they disagree.
Tragically, the era of intellectual “safe spaces” on our college campuses has only served to cultivate remarkably unsafe spaces in our public squares and civic life nationwide.

Here in the beautiful Lake Cumberland region of Kentucky, we have a vision to establish the Commonwealth’s only private research university — and to thoroughly reimagine the American university.
The University of Somerset will be deeply committed to fostering and preserving an academic environment in which the free pursuit of intellectual inquiry, expression, and discussion are held sacrosanct. We will prepare students to embrace intellectual curiosity and openness, conditions vital for learning to think deeply and critically.

Last year, the largest ever survey of college students regarding free speech on campus — conducted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, College Pulse, and RealClearEducation — strongly confirmed the unhealthy, stultifying, and anti-intellectual climate pervasive across much of the higher education milieu.
Three in five students polled said they did not feel free to share an opinion for fear of how fellow students, faculty or administration may respond. Among Ivy League school students, 37% believed that shouting down a speaker is “always” or “sometimes” acceptable; and more than 20% said that violence is at times appropriate to stop a campus speech.

Clearly, now more than ever, it is vital to teach our young people the lost art of civil discourse — to provide a much-needed environment to gain critical thinking skills and learning how to engage with individuals of diverse backgrounds and ideologies.
Students and faculty at the University of Somerset should expect our campus to be a forum for open dialogue, discussion, and debate — a university where every perspective will have a voice and academic freedom is truly manifest. We will provide education, not indoctrination.

“To suppress free speech is a double wrong,” once noted the eminent 19th century American reformer and statesman Frederick Douglass. “It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”
We at the University of Somerset could not agree more. We are committed to transforming higher education in our community, our commonwealth, and our country — by imbuing our students with the skills, knowledge, and character requisite for engaging their fellow citizens in the free and open exchange of ideas — equipping the next generation to not only grasp the exciting opportunities of the 21st century, but to lead the way there and beyond.

Michael Keck, M.Sc., M.A. is Vice President/Chief Development Officer, University of Somerset which will be Kentucky’s only private research university. A traditional university centered upon face-to-face instruction and student interaction, U.S. will be a highly selective and academically rigorous liberal arts undergraduate institution with a select offering of master’s degrees and Ph.D. programs.

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