Free speech

At trustees' meeting, a focus on free speech

At meeting of trustees, presidents and other campus leaders discuss the continuing turmoil colleges face in mediating tension over free speech.

James Madison official tells student who alleged sexual assault that speaking to press could violate university policy

A James Madison administrator told a student that talking with reporters about her case could violate university policies, a message that has been heavily criticized among civil liberties advocates.

Balancing free expression with unrepresented students' sense of belonging (opinion)

On our college campuses today, two core values of the academy, and of democratic society, have come into conflict.

On the one hand, we have freedom of expression, which is the foundation of all academic life. Free speech is what enables our students to pursue knowledge -- to learn and to grow -- by discussing subjects of all kinds, including the most troubling. It is the heart of every college and university, and the lifeblood of democratic self-governance.

On the other hand, we have diversity and inclusion. Our institutions have evolved to the point where many of us have embraced diversity in our core mission and value statements. And our students seek that diversity: in a recent Gallup/Knight Foundation study, those surveyed said they valued a diverse and inclusive environment more than free-speech rights.

What happens when those two core values come into conflict? This clash is different because it hits a raw nerve -- one of identity, particularly those identities that are deeply embedded and not chosen, such as race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. If that clash was about any other core values, such as belittling one’s chosen position about climate change or economic policy, it wouldn’t feel personal. But belittling one’s identity? Now exclusion is at the forefront, and it becomes personal.

Let me give you an example from my own experience when I was at Augustana College.

During the long presidential campaign of 2016, students, faculty and staff members awoke one morning to find that the entire campus had been covered with political slogans. “Build the Wall.” “Feminism Is Cancer.” “Hillary for Prison.” And, of course, “Trump 2016.” The slogans were chalked on every sidewalk.

Who would have thought that an innocent piece of chalk, a child’s most basic toy, could become a tool to provoke, to attack and -- yes -- to hurt?

Many students in our community felt threatened when they found themselves surrounded by those slogans written in the middle of the night. Those students who felt affected held protest meetings and demanded an immediate response from the administration. They wanted us to issue a condemnation of the sidewalk messages and take action against whoever was responsible.

Suddenly, we were embroiled in a dilemma other colleges and universities across the country were facing. Some people would have said it’s the dilemma about whether free expression on our campuses should have limits. But some of us saw it otherwise. We said it’s a dilemma about the limits on free expression when speech comes into conflict with the right of students to feel that they belong at our institutions.

A sense of belonging: that is perhaps the key to the value of diversity and inclusion. Over the past quarter century, higher education has looked closely at the fortunes of students of color at our colleges and universities. We have looked at retention and graduation rates. We have looked at student experiences on our campuses and participation in academic enrichment opportunities. We have seen that students of color come to our institutions and have a different experience than our white students, which impacts outcomes -- and we have learned that we need to be honest about the specificity of those experiences.

As a result, we have started to have serious conversations about what it would take for students of color to feel a similar sense of belonging as our white students. What that means, in immediate, personal terms, is that when students come back to our campuses after being away, we say to them, “Welcome home.”

So how can we break our word? It is entirely legitimate for students of color to say, “If this is truly my home, then why can’t I feel safe and respected within its walls? How is it tolerable that I should be assaulted by hateful messages within my own home?”

In such situations, some people nowadays are quick to complain that students have become too soft. Too spoiled. Coddled. Special snowflakes. But let me tell you, I could see that such students on my own campus were truly hurt, and some were in shock. I could not discount their feelings. I was disturbed myself -- those words stung me, too. But we administrators must act on principle and accept the emotional toll, even as we explain our decisions to different groups and, ironically, leave no one feeling completely satisfied.

The fact is, our administration could not satisfy student demands for legal action. As difficult as it was, we had to explain there are different kinds of threats, and while the aggressive, hurtful words scrawled around the campus indeed felt threatening, they did not constitute what the law considers to be a material threat or an imminent physical danger.

Yet the students didn’t want to hear this legalistic response. So, what could we do for them?

First, we asserted the right of our college to enforce our student code of conduct. Our institutions have the authority to establish rules of behavior. Public colleges and universities, of course, have far less leeway than private institutions. But students elect to go to a college. And by choosing to do so, they agree to abide by the standards of their new community.

So, we said, we have rules against plastering fliers over every surface on our campus. Let’s apply that same rule to the political sloganeering -- or what some people claimed was hate speech -- that was chalked onto the sidewalk. We cannot ban people from chalking an endorsement of one political candidate or a nasty message about another. But you can’t just bombard us with these messages wherever we go. So we will establish a place where it’s permissible to chalk, just as there are places where it’s permissible to put up fliers and posters.

That was the first step. We used our code of conduct. Then, I made a misstep.

I can laugh about it in retrospect, but it was not funny at the time. When we made our code-of-conduct decision, I sent an email to the whole college explaining how things were going to work. I should have said, “We are going to establish a free chalking zone on campus.” But, in my haste, I wrote, “a free speech zone.”

After I sent that email, I sent another one to correct it. But the damage had been done. People who wanted to score political points were already sending out blog posts with a screenshot of my campus email and complaining that free speech had been fenced in at Augustana College.

Distraught students were pushing for an immediate response, but nevertheless, I should have used better judgment. I’d like to think I’ve learned from that mistake. I’ll share the lesson with you: don’t just hit “send.” Read the email twice before sending it out.

As another key step, when the opportunity arose, we engaged in dialogue with one of our student organizations. The organization wanted to invite former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus in late spring or early fall 2016. Fortunately, the administration has to review all such invitations. We debated and did not just rubber-stamp this particular invitation. We asked the student leaders to engage in a conversation.

That conversation went as follows: as a college, we will not prevent Yiannopoulos from speaking, but we want to know, what teaching purpose do you believe will be served? What will he contribute to academic discourse? And how likely is it that he will persuade other students to adopt your point of view? If you truly believe in the positions you’re promoting, then why bring in a speaker who’s just a flamethrower? Why not bring in someone who is capable, in open discussion, of winning hearts and minds?

And the student leaders responded with, “You know, you’re right.” Engaging them in conversation before they brought in the speaker enabled our community to head off a potential problem.

Nothing we did was unique. And I realize we were really fortunate. However, our approach to resolving the conflict between free speech and inclusiveness can be found on other campuses. Drake University, for example, created a statement of principles that mentioned certain reasonable restrictions -- the things that students could not do -- but mostly focused on the positive: what students, faculty, and staff should do regarding free speech, academic freedom and civil discourse.

How can you create an effective statement of principles? Consider four components:

  1. Keep it short and simple, so it can be understood and remembered.
  2. Keep it inclusive, so that people realize the campus community is not divided into “us” and “them.” It’s always “us” and “others of us.”
  3. Keep it up-to-date, so that it encompasses changing situations.
  4. And, above all, keep it in practice. Model those principles and live them every day, not only in emergencies. Otherwise, they’re just Band-Aids.

The advantage of this approach is that it preserves free speech while making it clear to everyone that not all forms of behavior can be excused on First Amendment grounds. Indeed, campus speech codes have constitutional limits. But if we draft codes of conduct appropriately and take care to maintain a diversity of opinions, just as we respect the need for a diversity of people, then it is possible for us to create safe spaces for historically marginalized groups or for faculty to choose to provide students with trigger warnings without impacting the principles of free expression.

Our students are constantly learning, and we can’t expect them to know on their first try how to speak and interact in constructive ways that honor the community’s values. This is another reason why a statement of principles can be valuable -- and why inclusive and safe spaces, trigger warnings, and rules against microaggressions may be appropriate educational tools. They can help preserve an environment that allows for greater learning as long as we do the work on the other end of making our students ready to face uncomfortable, disturbing or even hateful environments once they leave our campuses.

The best learning often happens during debate, disagreement and controversy. We do well to remember that our educational missions are part of a continuing process intended to result in graduates more capable of navigating the world than when they first entered our campuses.

Pareena Lawrence is president of Hollins University. This essay was excerpted from a speech at the recent annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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When Core Values Collide

The upsides and downsides of the current DNA vogue (opinion)

The heat is on again in Texas, as a special State Senate panel recently held a hearing on the issue of campus free speech. The news of that event reminded me of the Texas State University student who wrote a piece for his campus newspaper entitled “Your White DNA Is an Abomination.” An earlier article included a response from the editor in chief of the student paper that deserves even more attention: “The original intent of the column was to comment on the idea of race and racial identities. We acknowledge that the column could have been clearer in its message and that it has caused hurt within our campus community.”

Now, let us consider the essential mission of an institution of higher education: to educate. Shouldn’t more attention be given, particularly by faculty members and academic administrators, to the fact that the abominable DNA piece was like a time-travel experience back to the excesses of eugenics, albeit in reverse gear?

We have been invited mainly to wonder whether we should view the student as hurt or as hateful. Instead, we should regard this student as apparently undereducated -- a state of affairs that is best addressed by education, certainly including higher education.

It is interesting, in this context, to consider the current vogue of having one’s DNA tested to find out who one “really” is. That has a positive side, leading us to see how we are, biologically speaking, made up of many groups that we have considered ethnically distinct and helping us to stop thinking about what we call “races” as if they were biologically homogeneous and separate groups. Thus, for example: “All along I thought I was just Irish, and it turns out my genes are 21 percent Eastern European Jewish and 7 percent Ghanaian!” Some results might have an entertaining side: “So, it turns out that my husband is literally part Neanderthal?”

In terms of more serious inquiries, Henry Louis Gates Jr. surely intends his Finding Your Roots program to underline that the diversity we human beings are heir to includes some very famous figures in American history. Current DNA research is also helping to bring archaeological and linguistic evidence together to map the historic movement of human populations.

It is, however, important to consider the downside of this DNA vogue as well. For example, a television advertisement shows a woman who has just discovered, through a commercial DNA service, that she is part Native American. We see her posed beside items of beautiful Southwestern pottery, as if they actually had something to do with her own life experience.

In another ad, a man is talking about how he always thought he was of German ancestry but found out that, according to his DNA, he is more Scots-Irish instead. He says he is going to trade his lederhosen in for a kilt. Not that anyone in his neighborhood actually dresses like that.

I propose we suggest to these people, if you wish to feel a connection to Native Americans, see if you can persuade some of them to let you spend quality time in their company. If you want to experience a closeness to Scotland, why not tell us about plans for an extended visit, as opposed to the quaint sartorial desires that the ads depict? Needless to say, we expect that you are both spending a lot of time reading about these people to whom you assert a link.

As for the student who writes about “white DNA”: How about clearly separating yourself from the kind of racist reductionism and ignorance that have victimized so many people like yourself in the past? Take advantage of the fact that you are in college. Get an education.

Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and president emerita of Barnard College.

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The Abominable White DNA Snowman

We must defend the free speech of professors who are verbally attacked in class (opinion)

You know who you are.

You cringed as you read about the attacks earlier this month on Princeton University anthropology professor Lawrence Rosen, who was denounced for using the N-word in a class on hate speech and blasphemy. Then you read that Rosen had canceled the class. And then you said, here we go again.

But only to yourself. You didn’t have the guts to go public with your concerns, either on social media or in face-to-face discussions. Why risk the vilification that Rosen received? It’s so much easier to sigh, roll your eyes and move on.

Score one for the bullies. And that’s the real subtext to the shaming of Lawrence Rosen, and of other similar episodes around the country. On questions of free speech, our campuses are deeply divided. But only one side typically speaks up, while the other keeps quiet.

Consider the controversial Brookings Institution poll from last summer, in which 51 percent of surveyed students agreed that it was acceptable for a student group to shout down a speaker “known for making offensive and hurtful statements.” That meant 49 percent disagreed, of course.

The survey is questionable, as it was opt-in, and so there's no assurance that the sample was representative. And the fraction of students who object to shouting down an offensive speaker is most likely higher than that, because the Brookings study was conducted right after the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va. That probably skewed the results in favor of shouting down offensive speech; in normal times, we’d expect to find more students on the other side. They just don’t raise their own voices as loudly, if at all.

And that’s apparently what happened in Rosen’s classroom. Introducing the course, Rosen asked whether it would be worse for a white man to punch a black man or to call the African-American the N-word. When a student asked him if he would continue to use that term, in full, he said he would do so when he felt it was “necessary.”

Several students walked out of the class, according to those who were there. But one student shouted at Rosen, asking whether he felt “safe right now,” then another stood up, inches from Rosen’s face, and shouted an obscenity.

But here’s the most important detail, which has gotten lost in most of the coverage of this ugly contretemps: from all reports, the rest of the students sat on their hands. As one witness recalled, “Nobody except Rosen defended Rosen.” Nor have any other published accounts described students coming to their professor’s defense. Surely, there were people in the class -- which, again, was focused on hate speech -- who believed it was legitimate for Rosen to use the N-word in a discussion about the themes of the course. They apparently just kept that opinion to themselves.

And that rendered them "complicit" in the incident, to borrow a popular buzzword from today's political lexicon. They were silent partners in the humiliation of Lawrence Rosen. And they should be ashamed about that.

But not as ashamed as professors, especially those who fashion themselves as champions of free speech. Last September, for example, the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers and the Association of American Colleges and Universities released a joint statement denouncing the “harassment” of faculty members for controversial comments made in public speeches, social media and the classroom.

The statement was occasioned by attacks upon Syracuse University communications professor Dana Cloud, who tweeted negatively about a protest called March Against Sharia. After right-wing activists called for her dismissal, the faculty organizations rallied to her side.

“Free speech is and will remain one of our key values,” declared Syracuse University president Kent Syverud, in a comment that the joint statement quoted. “Our faculty must be able to say and write things -- including things that provoke some or make others uncomfortable -- up to the very limits of the law.”

So where were the faculty voices rising up to defend Lawrence Rosen? For the most part, they’ve gone silent. It’s a lot easier to defend a professor who’s being trolled by Islamophobes on the internet than it is to speak up on behalf of a colleague under face-to-face attack from students, especially if you might have to face their wrath down the road.

To be fair, Rosen’s department chair issued a strong statement in support of his right to free speech. So did Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber.

And on a few other campuses, students and faculty members have begun to challenge the campus bullies. A Reed College professor who was shouted down during a required freshman humanities course last fall published an ardent retort in The Washington Post, denouncing protesters for intimidating her and other faculty members. And in a video that went viral, students in the same course stood up to defend their professors and to demand that the protesters sit down.

Indeed, there are rumblings of a new nationwide student movement in favor of free speech. That was the rallying cry of student activists in the 1960s, of course, starting with the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. And last May, students from 20 colleges around the country met in Chicago to try to revive the tradition.

“A central purpose of education is to teach students to challenge themselves and engage with opposing perspectives,” the group declared. “The only way to achieve this is by cultivating a culture where all are free to communicate without fear of censorship and intimidation.”

The Princeton students who reviled Lawrence Rosen borrowed the same language, insisting that his words intimidated them. But they are the real bullies, of course. And, like bullies everywhere, they seek to scare everyone else into submission.

Enough already. Just as the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing, as Burke taught us, the only thing necessary for the triumph of censorship is for the rest of us to keep quiet. Speak up, people. Our freedom of speech depends on it.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press).

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The best campus environments for free expression, inclusion and learning (opinion)

At the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities' national meeting a few months ago, I realized something about the current debate over free speech and inclusion at public universities. I attended a session on free expression on campus, covered by Inside Higher Ed in an article, “Tips for Handling Firebrands.” The panelists were excellent, and the discussion was informative. Yet the message was clear: under no circumstances can public universities deny access to speakers or groups who pollute the campus climate by offering no intellectual content or whose sole goal is to manufacture conflict, increase polarization and target certain groups of students with messages of hate.

The panelists seemed to agree that they have no control over common spaces on their campuses -- that these spaces are the public square, the same as Main Street or the town green. Yes, institutions could place reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on certain spaces, such as offices and dormitories. And they could probably require permits and control the time of day to prevent noise or disruption to the educational process. And professors may establish standards for content and behavior in the classroom.

But absent threats of immediate violence or safety concerns, institutions could never deny access to common spaces by people or groups because of the content of their speech, no matter how intellectually deficient, discriminatory, abhorrent or toxic.

I can’t help but wonder what happened to academic freedom and the right of a university to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught and who may be admitted to study. Doesn’t institutional academic freedom allow educators to create quality learning environments based on sound educational and pedagogical goals? My colleagues at public institutions rightfully note that this may be difficult for them since the First Amendment applies directly to them, unlike private institutions, which have more leeway. Nonetheless, learning happens beyond the classroom at all colleges and universities, public and private.

I realized that perhaps we (educators) have failed to articulate how important campus climates are to student learning, and how disruptive and unequal some climates can be. Many educational researchers, including our research institute, have documented the importance of campus climates as the foundation and context for quality learning. I am not advocating for tight regulation of speech in common areas, but I predict more conflict as educators seek to shape learning environments in this era of extreme polarization.

Having worked on free speech, inclusion and deliberative democracy with hundreds of academics and institutions for 25 years, I have observed some recurring patterns -- typical campus environments that reflect whether and how institutions approach political discussions, controversy and action. Colleges and universities are complex organizations with myriad programs and departments, but when it comes to free speech and inclusion, they often fall into one or more of these cultures (or these could be microclimates present in some schools/departments at the university and not in others).

An avoidance culture. These campuses observe the old saying “One does not discuss sex, politics or religion in polite company” and try their hardest to avoid anything that might make headlines, cause disruption or offend donors, legislators or parents. Campus forums allow panelists or speakers to make their point, followed by polite questions and answers. Some narrowly defined discussions happen in certain classes, but they are not part of the broader culture of learning or beyond-the-classroom experiences for all students.

A policing culture. In this situation, either students or administrators take on the task of defining and policing what can and cannot be said -- and in different ways. Students do not “tolerate intolerance” and will block speakers, protest the use of facilities by certain campus organizations, and seek to ostracize those with views they do not share. They are suspicious of calls for free speech as a defense for airing those views.

Another version of policing politics happens when administrators regulate every possible scenario, from chalk writings to posters. Some codes are so restrictive that thoughtless or ignorant one-time statements can be grounds for disciplinary action.

A toxic culture. Free speech becomes a free-for-all. Provocative, point-counterpoint exchanges shape this type of campus environment. Too often, members of the campus community make extreme statements that are factually outrageous or intentionally demeaning in order to antagonize other people and test the limits of free speech. One person or a small group can pollute the entire campus climate. Administrators eagerly wait for those students to graduate or such faculty members to retire.

These cultures are each problematic -- and unnecessary. Some campuses balance free speech and inclusion better than others. As part of our research, we visited some campuses that come closer to the ideal. Here are some things that they provide.

  • Attentiveness to social cohesion, particularly across social and political ideological divides. These institutions emphasize the true aim of college: to be a community of learners that share responsibility for each other’s well-being and success. Faculty members go the extra mile to help students. People care about each other, regardless of their differences. Institutions implement programs to prevent student isolation. On such campuses, people disagree, but they remain colleagues.
  • Pervasive political discussions in the classroom and beyond. Faculty members view the social identity and ideological diversity of the students as educational assets. They are skilled at facilitating discussions and treat conflict as an educational opportunity. Students are taught -- often in a core, required course -- to talk politics well. Minority perspectives are valued, but it is ideas, not individuals or their social identity or political ideology, that draw critique. Free speech is a given, but speech that disrupts the educational process or that has no educational merit is managed, not dodged.
  • Respect for students as leaders and partners in institutional affairs. Students develop political agency because they have agency on the campus. That can be through student government, leadership programs, service on committees or decision-making bodies, representation off campus (for example, with the state Legislature), or local community engagement. There are mechanisms in place to encourage student input, and when students organize or protest, the administration listens and tries to find common ground.

The goal is to educate, not regulate. Campuses can cultivate these attributes through a combination of assessment, dialogue, clarification of norms and expectations, and clear educational goals. Colleges and universities need to be able to articulate how the campus climate contributes to its learning goals. And institutions may need to develop an educational rationale for controlling intellectually deficient, discriminatory, abhorrent or toxic speech -- but, if they follow some of these recommendations, they may not even need to do so.

Nancy Thomas directs the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. The institute is a leading research center and think tank on the political learning and engagement in democracy of college and university students. Its signature initiative is the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (@TuftsIDHE), which analyzes student voting at more than 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities.

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A president cites lessons learned from a controversy concerning academic freedom (opinion)

Here are two simple truths.

One, when you’re a college president who happens to be a black woman, you get asked to speak about diversity and inclusion a lot. Two, when you’re a college president whose campus has been disrupted by a social media maelstrom over a professor’s words, you get asked to speak about managing crises and the tension between academic freedom and other fundamental values a lot.

This year, I’ve experienced the convergence of those two truths because the controversy our campus weathered last summer involved a perfect storm of race, politics, safety on campus and competing claims of ownership over who has the right to speak and what they can and cannot say.

The trouble began on June 20, when Campus Reform -- a conservative website that counts as “victories” the firings of faculty members or changes in college policies that result from its efforts to expose liberal “bias and abuse” at colleges -- reported on the Facebook posts of a tenured Trinity College sociology professor who is black. A couple of days earlier, the professor, a scholar of race and racism in America, had expressed his outrage at continuing racial violence in a series of provocative posts on his personal social media accounts. In doing so, he used a hashtag borrowed from the title of a piece written by someone else (#LetThemFuckingDie). I’ve said that hashtag not only offended me personally but also was inconsistent with the highest values of our institution.

You don’t have to know the specifics of this story to have a sense of what happened next, because this sort of controversy is now familiar throughout higher education, and the events follow a well-worn pattern. Other conservative and alt-right organizations picked up the story, distorting it (in some cases publishing outright falsehoods), and social media trolls descended upon us. The professor and his family received numerous direct threats, as did my family and I, and we were forced to close the college for half a day after receiving several threats to campus. People across the campus -- administrative assistants, admissions counselors and many others -- were besieged with vile, hateful phone calls and emails.

And then, of course, we heard calls for the professor and me to be fired, and demands for me to defend the professor and his academic freedom unequivocally. There was fear on the campus and worry among our community broadly. The college placed the professor on leave while we examined the matter more carefully and in consideration of the safety issues. And many faculty members considered this an infringement on the professor’s academic freedom. Though our administrative report (released July 14, 2017) supported the professor’s right to say what he did, anger remained throughout many of our constituencies. The trolls, at least temporarily, had succeeded. We were a college divided.

Over time, the trolls (mostly) moved on, and we were left to come back together as a community and, hopefully, grow stronger. That work is hard. Anger on my campus and among our alumni remains. But we have worked hard to encourage programming that has allowed each side to express opinions and to understand the nuances and contours of academic freedom. We have been vigilant about safety issues on campus. That work continues.

And now I’m regularly asked to reflect on lessons learned. I can do that now, with a little distance from the intensity of the storm. There are many lessons. Here are a few.

  • Resist the pressure to make hasty decisions and view a situation simplistically. From all sides, we were bombarded with demands to say more, do more, act more quickly and see things in absolutes. As educators, our role is to help our students see and embrace complexities, and a situation like this is full of them.
  • Stick to your principles. I can both support free speech and acknowledge that it and every other freedom has limits and carries responsibilities. As a college president, I can uphold a community member’s right to free expression and express my own opinion when I believe something runs counter to our institutional values. This is not a popularity contest. This is a complex situation and, as a leader, you have to look yourself in the mirror each and every day as the controversy continues.
  • Rely on plans and processes. We put our emergency management plans to the test, and they worked. We also turned to existing policies in evaluating what had happened. But it’s important to acknowledge that most governance processes aren’t meant to address crisis situations, and college leaders must prioritize safety and balance an often-divergent set of institutional needs.
  • Listen. So many people were demanding that I say a particular thing (and, in fact, very different things, depending on their perspectives), but listening was at least as important as speaking. If I had it to do over again, I’d work harder to stay in direct conversation with the professor myself, before so many other external forces leaned on us. And I think more listening from everyone involved -- to hear perspectives from all sides -- would have helped us get more quickly to a point of understanding. Indeed, having gone through our recent experience, our hope is that all members of our community better understand the need to listen and our shared responsibility to communicate directly and honestly with each other.
  • Find strength in numbers. Colleges don’t bear the sole responsibility for protecting speech -- it’s the duty of all citizens. This is complicated in a society that recognizes that speech by bullies hurts and has consequences on the victim. But colleges and universities do have a special role to play in protecting speech, as a vicious culture war is being waged against higher education today. We -- college leaders, faculty members, alumni and organizations that exist to advance and support higher education -- must work together to battle it, to stay true to our values and protect academic freedom for the good of the academy and the public.

I don’t know what the future holds for this particular story. We are not yet a college united. The professor will be back teaching in the spring, and it’s very possible we’ll see a renewed attack from the alt-right and others. Some faculty members and students are still angry because they believe that I didn’t stand up strongly enough for academic freedom and placed concerns of physical safety over intellectual safety. Some alumni and students are still angry because they believe that the professor’s words set a hateful tone and damaged the college -- and in a business setting would have resulted in firing. Did I make the right choice in balancing academic freedom and safety? I believe I did. But that doesn’t mean everyone agrees.

I’m hopeful, however, that the entire Trinity College community has learned important lessons. And I’m heartened by the way I saw our college community come together this past semester -- including around an initiative we launched called Bridging Divides -- to continue the ongoing work of engaging in productive, respectful dialogue and understanding across deep differences. Today, in our deeply divided world, that work seems more important than ever.

Joanne Berger-Sweeney is president of Trinity College in Connecticut. This column is adapted from her remarks at this year’s Council of Independent Colleges Presidents Institute.

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At University of Mississippi, harassment policy breaks the norm

University of Mississippi’s general counsel has drafted a harassment policy that allows students to be punished for a single incident, atypical among colleges.

Balancing free speech with quality speech (opinion)

In an era of information overload, we face the problem that too much information is equivalent to too little. But we also face a more serious problem: a Gresham’s law of information in which bad information is driving out good information. Gresham’s law also holds for speech and is thus relevant to the many speech-related upheavals occurring on college and university campuses that we’ve read about repeatedly (and, by now, ad nauseam).

What makes the situation particularly challenging is that a worthy and important concern for free speech can overshadow the concern for quality speech. But, given the business that institutions of higher education are in -- that of teaching and learning, scholarship and science -- it would seem entirely fitting and proper for them to have certain standards of speech. To be sure, the way in which we go about our business changes over time; we learn new things and do our work in different ways. But if we simply do not believe in our basic goals and the rules for achieving them, we should consider some other line of work.

The most ultramontane free speech advocates adopt a kind of domino theory according to which recognizing such distinctions can never be principled or even possible. To use a mélange of comparable metaphors, it is the thin edge of the camel’s nose sliding down the slippery slope under the tent. How can you possibly turn Richard Spencer down while accepting Charles Murray? But domino theories should be viewed with suspicion, as they depend on an inability to make reasoned judgments based on principles that can be understood and values that can be shared. To give one example of a problematic and widely unaccepted domino theory: abortion is murder, and women who would terminate a pregnancy are on a slippery slope to drowning their toddlers in a bathtub.

And then there is the metaphor of a “marketplace of ideas.” But is that the most appropriate way to think about colleges and universities? Presumably, in a marketplace, you get to sell whatever someone else wants to buy. Order comes from a phantom yet efficacious metaphorical body part: the invisible hand. In a college or university, however, order presumably comes from the interaction of various segments of a community: faculty members, administrators, staff members, board members -- and, yes, students as well. Not that such order is always easily achieved.

There may be a place on a campus that functions like that marketplace of ideas, a kind of Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner. The most familiar example is Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus of the University of California -- a site with a lively and storied past. But as we have seen, outside parties with private funding who clearly do not have the interest of the university at heart can exploit such supposedly free market spaces. Dealing with such situations presents its own challenges to those responsible for the institutions, challenges that Berkeley in particular has dealt with quite well.

So, what is a different way of thinking about significant speech events on campuses?

First of all, we might replace the metaphor of the market with the metaphor -- or more than a metaphor -- of representative democracy. Representatives of different sectors of the community might come together to commune and prioritize. They might agree that diversity of viewpoint is a major desideratum. They might also consider that the term “conservative” is thrown around promiscuously these days and that it might be good for students to learn what it actually means when taken seriously.

Thought might also be given to event formats. Would it be especially desirable to have two speakers at once, representing different views, for at least some events? Might it be desirable to require a question-and-answer session?

Different segments of an academic community have their respective roles to play as they come together to consider the goals and standards for campus speech. Faculty members, who are the ones getting paid -- as opposed to students, who are the ones paying -- might remember that theirs is the role of relative grown-ups, especially in institutions populated by traditional college-age students. They are the ones who can themselves set a standard as speakers, through a regular respect for facts, reason and rhetorical skills. They cannot play such a role if they are given to online trolling, for example -- or if they fail to take seriously their responsibilities as teachers.

Students, for their part, should see the responsibilities they themselves take on as preparation for life after college -- their working life, their life as citizens in a democracy and a life of using their college years as a springboard for continuing to learn.

Administrators generally share the grown-up role with faculty members, and the more the two coordinate their efforts, the better. Senior administrators -- presidents in particular -- have a special role. The president is not simply a chief executive officer but also a chief interpretive officer, the one who must comment effectively and powerfully. It can be a challenge for the institutional leader to avoid innocuous, pablum-like utterances while taking the high road -- particularly since true and relevant statements morph into clichés all too quickly (e.g., “This does not reflect the values of X college”). But presumably, that is why presidents are paid those big bucks. Perhaps they can get help from the humanists and communications specialists on their faculty.

And perhaps institutions of higher education can contribute as much as possible to the kind of quality speech we all need more of in these times.

Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and president and professor of anthropology emerita at Barnard College.

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Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner
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