Free Speech in Contentious Times

Leaders of state universities hear differing views on how to uphold academic values at a time when many students feel under siege and misunderstood.

November 14, 2016

AUSTIN, Tex. -- The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities set the theme for its opening keynote discussion here Sunday well before Election Day. The topic: "Balancing Freedom of Expression and Diversity on Campuses." The election results weren't just the elephant in the room for the session, but were more like a herd of elephants stomping through the room.

To be sure, many public universities have struggled with these issues for some time, and in particular since 2015's protests by minority students led to widespread discussions of racial incidents on campus and on social media. In many cases, what some students saw as hate speech, university leaders and free speech advocates saw as protected speech. APLU's members are public universities, and the First Amendment is very much a factor in how these institutions can respond.

But for many here, the election results are creating a particular challenge.

Bernadette Montoya, vice president of student affairs and enrollment at New Mexico State University, said that she spent time Sunday with colleagues in student affairs from other land-grant universities. To a person, she said, they were scrambling to provide support to students -- in particularly minority or immigrant students -- who feel vulnerable. While not all campuses are seeing the rallies and marches of some, all the student affairs leaders here said they were looking for ways to reassure students.

In private discussions, university presidents said they were feeling considerable stress over these issues as well, wanting to make students feel supported, but also not wanting to appear partisan.

Montoya was part of a panel responding to Clarence Page, the syndicated columnist, who kicked off the discussion by recounting the recent debates over trigger warnings, safe spaces and more. He seemed frustrated with the way some students of late have not wanted to hear out those with whom they disagree, and he noted that when he was brought in to speak about race relations at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, minority students took the stage and wouldn't let him talk until they spent considerable time reading demands. He seemed generally sympathetic to the now well-known University of Chicago letter to freshmen warning them not to expect trigger warnings or safe spaces.

Things got interesting when the panelists -- including university leaders and a student leader -- had their chance to weigh in.

Mildred Garcia, president of California State University at Fullerton, who moderated the panel, was not afraid of the elephants in the room. She asked participants to reflect on how they can address these issues, in the wake of the election, "when we have students in fear, when we have faculty members in fear."

Howard Gillman, chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, said it was time to "stop making certain mistakes." One of those mistakes, he suggested, was talking about these issues as if academe has a choice between supporting free speech and supporting minority students.

He said that university leaders must of course defend academic freedom, and he said that means teaching each cohort of students what academic freedom is and why it matters, not just assuming they will be aware and understand.

But he said the University of Chicago letter was "wrong," and not because it defended academic freedom. He said the letter was wrong "for being dismissive of the notion of safety of students on campus." While everyone may not agree on what a safe learning environment is, he said, every student should feel that their administration supports creating one, and students shouldn't be mocked for demanding one.

"If we aren't listening to the concerns of the students about a safe environment, that's wrong," he said.

Further, he said academic leaders need to be honest that some attitudes about the way people on a campus interact have evolved in positive ways because of student demands for sensitivity. He cited the "fundamental transformation" in higher education about sexual assault and sexual harassment. He said there is a very different sense of "what's OK and what's not OK" than was the case a generation ago, and that's been an important shift in the right direction.

Mariah Watson, immediate past student body president at the University of California, Davis, and the first black person to hold that post, said she felt that much of the discussion about students being "coddled" or "spoiled" was based on conversations without any minority students included. During her student body presidency, the university saw three hate crimes, she said, directed at different groups. Just yesterday, she heard from a former roommate still at Davis, telling her about a swastika that had just appeared on an apartment building wall.

"We're considered whiners," she said. "But mental health is a really big issue on campus."

It is still common for people to come up to black students -- as Watson said happened to her many times -- and say, "Are you an athlete?" Why shouldn't black students speak out about such incidents, she asked. To sustained applause, she told the room full of administrators to “stop being condescending to your students for speaking up about what hurts them."

And she framed the trigger warning debate in part by noting the role that black students frequently play in class without anyone asking their permission. When she was the only black student in a history course in which an image of a lynching was shown, everyone immediately asked her how she felt, as a black woman, looking at the image, whether she had family members who had been affected by lynching and so forth.

"I would have appreciated a trigger warning," she said -- not asking that the image not be shown, but asking for a warning.

Page, the columnist, said, "I don't want to call your generation coddled," but went on to share an example of what he said "troubles me about political correctness." He cited the reactions of students at Emory University in March when some students chalked "Trump 2016" on campus. Some students said at the time that they felt threatened by the chalkings.

"If there is anything that the First Amendment is for, it is political speech," he said.

Gillman, of Irvine, offered three strategies he said he hoped research universities would pursue in the wake of the election:

  • "Make it as clear as possible that we are doubling down on the values we have of diverse communities of mutual respect," he said. "The level of rhetoric in this campaign truly created threats and ignited a kind of hate" that needs to be opposed. "Let’s not be shy."
  • Academics need to recognize that there are people in the United States "who feel that they are not being heard," Gillman said. Whatever scholars may feel about Trump voters, they need to find ways to "reach across the divide of opinion."
  • "We need to remember our scholarly mission," Gillman said. That means looking at the political trends in the United States and Western Europe, and remembering that "democracies are fragile things," and that they are challenged by “authoritarian strands" in many countries. Gillman, a scholar of the Constitution, said that universities and their professors "need to spend a bit more time thinking about the conditions that sustain democracy and those that undermine democracy."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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