Canceling a speaker is run-of-the-mill these days. So, when a university “cancels the cancellation,” it’s worth noting.
Dr. Kristin Collier is a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan and director of the school’s Program on Health, Spirituality and Religion. She was a natural choice to give the keynote address at the school’s white coat ceremony for incoming students. The Gold Humanism Honor Society selects speakers “who are exemplars of compassionate patient care and who serve as role models, mentors, and leaders in medicine.”
A group of 300 students protested because of Collier’s pro-life views. “We demand that UM stands in solidarity with us and selects a speaker whose values align with institutional policies, students, and the broader medical community,” they wrote in an anonymous letter.
Rather than bow to the pressure, as so many school officials have done in recent years, medical school dean Marschall Runge defended the choice of Collier and the school’s commitment to freedom of expression. “Our values speak about honoring the critical importance of diversity of personal thought and ideas,” he wrote in a statement. “We would not revoke a speaker because they have different personal ideas than others.”
The handful of students who walked out during Dr. Collier’s address missed something special, an incredible speech that challenged students to rethink what medicine is and is for.
“The risk of this education and the one that I fell into is that you can come out of medical school with a bio-reductionist, mechanistic view of people and ultimately of yourself. You can easily end up seeing your patients as just a bag of blood and bones or human life as just molecules in motion.”
You are not technicians taking care of complex machines, but human beings taking care of other human beings. Let’s resist a view, of our patients and ourselves, that strips us of our humanity, and takes away from the very goal of why we went into this profession in the first place: to take care of human beings entrusted to our care in their moments of greatest need.”
From there, Collier challenged these medical professionals in training to ask big questions about who they are and what they do, and to practice gratitude. It was a brilliant speech overshadowed by a fabricated and unnecessary controversy.
Roughly half of all Americans share Dr. Collier’s views on abortion, which she did not address in her speech. As Dr. Vinay Prasad wrote in the blog Common Sense, “I do not share Dr. Collier’s faith or her views on abortion. But ultimately, the decision of students to walk out of the lecture because they disagree with the speaker on another topic has no limit.”
Collier’s colleague, University of Michigan professor Scott Richard Lyons, wrote for Inside Higher Ed,
If the academy brooks no dissent, how can knowledge advance? If differing opinions are treated as thought crimes, how much longer will thinkers want to work at our universities? If institutions of higher education do not protect free thought and speech, intellectual diversity, dissent… why should they exist at all?
In fact, the University of Michigan’s Faculty Handbook states that “expression of diverse points of view is of the highest importance” and should be protected. Of course, most universities and organizations have similar statements but lack the courage to live by them.
In contrast, Dr. Collier’s courage, grace under pressure, and dedication to professional excellence exemplify what’s required in a culture that forgets that free speech in a free society blesses everyone. Her kindness to those who walked out of their own white coat ceremony exemplifies how we must treat everyone, from those who reject that freedom to those still located inside the womb. In that moment, she lived out her advice to not see people as machines but as human beings. Especially for those entering a profession especially prone to cynicism and burnout, her address is worth watching in its entirety.
Let’s pray there are many among that University of Michigan crowd who follow in Dr. Collier’s footsteps.