University of Dallas president: Mission of higher ed is open debate in pursuit of truth

Jonathan Sanford University of Dallas President Dr. Jonathan Sanford speaks at the Heritage Foundation on Feb. 8, 2024. | Credit: Tyler Arnold/CNA

In a speech delivered at the Heritage Foundation, widely considered the most influential conservative think tank in the United States, University of Dallas President Jonathan J. Sanford expressed concerns about the level of politicization that reigns in American universities and emphasized that the pursuit of truth requires open debate.

In a Feb. 8 speech titled “Universities, Patriotism, and Citizenship: A Catholic Liberal Arts Approach to the Election Year,” Sanford said there are only “very rare moments” when taking a political stance is appropriate for institutions of higher education. He said universities should instead foster open debate so that “the pursuit of truth can proceed in an unfettered way.”

Sanford, a professor of philosophy, has served as president of the University of Dallas, a private Catholic university located in Irving, Texas, since 2022. 

Sanford cited the example of several university presidents who made statements after the United States Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade that implied that “there’s something wicked to holding the pro-life position.” Such statements, he said, “silence those who like to argue about that position” and can create an “alienation of Christians on campus.”

“Arguing about abortion ought to be possible,” Sanford noted.

Politicization, Sanford warned, also jeopardizes the public’s trust in the objectivity of institutions and their academic research.

“There’s a growing perception that universities aren’t worth it anymore,” he said. “There seems to be a whole lot of politics going on. Does that mean there’s not much learning going on?”

During his remarks Sanford also gave voice to “deep concerns about cancel culture,” noting that the university setting needs to be one “where genuine debate can occur.”

He recalled that free and open debate helps foster patriotism as well. He pointed out that the Federalist Papers, which were the framework for the U.S. Constitution, were “arrived at through a lot of debate,” adding that one must learn, test, and then come to embrace the founding principles, at which point “your admiration and love for them ensues.”

However, Sanford noted that patriotism, from a Catholic perspective, does not always mean supporting the actions of one’s country. He cited St. Thomas More as the perfect example of a patriot. More was an adviser to King Henry VIII who was executed for refusing to support the king’s defiance of the Church in the establishment of the Anglican Church.

“Genuine patriotism is grounded in love of God and his Church,” Sanford said.

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