Diversity is a core value of Guilford College, where I serve as president. It challenges us to welcome a variety of persons and perspectives.
Much talk of diversity is about race, ethnicity, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. But what about diversity of perspectives and how we treat that kind of diversity? Every college and university has Democrats and Republicans, environmentalists and developers, occupiers and capitalists, vegetarians and carnivores, and fans of Fox News and NPR. Diversity is a matter of listening to all sides with deference and a mind that is open to new ideas.
Don’t misunderstand me. There are still rights and wrongs and self-evident truths: Hate speech is evil, evolution happened, the earth circles the sun, and the Red Sox are the best team in baseball. Apart from those absolutes, isn’t being a sanctuary for unfettered dialogue the essence of a college education?
It is in theory but not always in practice, including here. Many believe that Guilford is a left-wing echo chamber where it is easier to be accepted if you are a social activist who abhors capitalism, sports and the American flag. Many believe this – fairly or not – of many colleges and universities. It’s not wrong to hold those views, but it is wrong to think that only those views are proper or that Guilford is really that much of a one-party state. It’s also perplexing given how much my colleges’s Quaker founders risked in promoting peace and tolerance.
When I came to Guilford in 2002, I heard about a short-lived tradition of the men’s soccer team to rise before dawn on February 6 and chalk the campus to commemorate Ronald Reagan’s birthday. They did it, one claimed, to annoy the hippies. Or consider this: Why must we take precautions against disruptions when we invite Tony Blair or Ralph Reed to speak but not Bill Clinton?
A parent walked out on me because he claimed that his daughter was not sent here to have her hard-core socialism questioned or even discussed. Yet having your beliefs challenged might change them or just make them stronger. President Kennedy reminded us that, "Tolerance implies no lack of commitment to one’s own beliefs. Rather it condemns the oppression or persecution of others."
Other institutions wrongheadedly embrace the other extreme. State legislatures and boards of trustees threaten loss of tenure or expulsion for being gay, opposing war, promoting choice, protesting economic inequality or questioning authority. Right-wing academics hallucinate that smart liberal kids become coddled academics or social workers and smart conservatives go into business and make money. They miss opportunities like the majestic generosity of Guilford students increasing their own activity fees to provide financial aid for the neediest among them.
When I was growing up, my family perpetually argued. Both of my parents believed that FDR was a covert communist. Their Disneyland was small government and low taxes. Then, I journeyed from being a right-wing Republican to an independent who is an economic conservative and social liberal. At Syracuse University, I joined a March on Washington against the Vietnam War. Of course, I still had enough Republican DNA that I did not hitchhike to D.C. or sleep in a church with my friends. I flew first-class and bedded at something like the Ritz Carlton.
The advice I give students, and that I hope faculty members at all colleges will join me in promoting, goes something like this:
Think it possible you might be mistaken. To paraphrase Churchill, truth is like an elusive butterfly — gleaming, fluttering, settling for an instant with wings fully spread to the sun, then vanishing in the shades of the forest. What you believe depends on the slanting glimpses you had of the color of its wings.
Avoid groupthink where everyone shares the same beliefs or think they do. Faculty, staff and even students in trendy, self-validating clusters tend to delude themselves that the people around them are roughly representative of the general society. This assumption is tough to overcome because it is so soothing.
Dump the stereotypes. Dave Barry and others ask if we really believe all red state residents are dumb, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, NASCAR-obsessed, gun-fondling, Bible-bullying, redneck, sweatshop tycoons who claim government doesn’t work, and then get elected and prove it; or that all blue-state residents are godless, unpatriotic, ear-pierced, Volvo-driving, latte-sucking, tofu-chomping, tax- crazed bleeding-hearts who presume people shouldn’t have to work and beg our enemies, "Please don’t hurt me."
Seek out people with different beliefs. People want to be around others who think and act like themselves. Imagine what a cataract of horrors it would be for some Harvard University professors to be on the same faculty with a member of the Tea Party. But beyond that difficulty lies an opportunity for understanding and compromise. Imagine if the politicians in Washington could collaborate to get something done rather than demonize each other, spew half-truths, and bankrupt us all.
Like Mark Twain, “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.”
Protect the rights of others to be different. Conformity imprisons liberty. Don’t be a hostage to prejudice or a bystander to intolerance. Get in the way. Remember what Voltaire said about dissent: "I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it."
Kent John Chabotar is president of Guilford College. This column is adapted from his remarks at this year's Guilford commencement.