'Rigorous Inquiry and Respectful Debate'

Colgate offers up its own statement on campus speech, arguing that it's not just what you say, it's how you say it.

October 5, 2018
 
Colgate University

When it comes to campus speech, can a middle ground between freedom of expression and inclusion really be reached? Colgate University thinks it has struck such a balance in a report from its Task Force on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression. The document already has been endorsed by Colgate’s faculty, student government and Board of Trustees, and it’s being released for general consideration today.

Those involved in the project describe it as both a reiteration of and counterpoint to the University of Chicago’s much-cited statement on free expression, published in 2015 to the delight of free speech purists.

While both the Chicago and new Colgate statements offer “a strong defense of the free exchange of ideas, and of its necessity,” said Colgate president Brian W. Casey, Colgate’s report also speaks to “the values of humility and empathy, and the practice of careful listening. It calls for members of the community to exercise their rights to free speech in full awareness of context.”

Those ideals are essential tenets of a liberal arts education, Casey said, and thinking about their interplay in “difficult discussions” should help serve to “reinforce an atmosphere of inquiry on the campus.”

Casey added, “If Colgate is to contribute to and to shape the national discourse, we must create an atmosphere on this campus that relies on rigorous inquiry and respectful debate. This is an essential thing we must instill in all of our students.”

Not In Opposition

Some have long argued that rigorous inquiry and respectful debate do not stand in opposition. Indeed, the American Council on Education, backed by survey data, has stressed the importance of not “pitting” inclusion and speech against each other. Yet many if not most conversations about campus speech still revolve around two poles: absolute freedom of expression and the importance of creating an inclusive environment.

Seeking input on how Colgate might balance and even make complementary these notions, not just for its campus but as a possible model for others, Casey last summer charged a task force with what he described at the time as “reviewing the history of academic freedom and freedom of expression policies and developments at Colgate and drafting a statement on academic freedom and the freedom of expression as it relates to all sectors of the university’s community.”

The 13-member task force included faculty members from across disciplines, a science librarian, trustees who are also alumni and an associate dean. Members met regularly for a year in a process that was careful and -- by all accounts -- at times contentious. Ultimately, they concluded that Colgate “should affirm its commitment to the principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom as essential to fulfilling its mission and goals.”

But to that end, they wrote, Colgate -- as a liberal arts institution -- should support “the rights of all community members to voice their views, even if unpopular, while helping them to likewise cultivate the habits of mind and skills necessary to respond effectively to views that they may find wrong or offensive.”

Colgate should endeavor to establish and maintain a “culture and community that will inspire its members to pursue knowledge with rigor and curiosity, speak and listen with care, and work so that even the quietest or most underrepresented voices among us are heard,” the committee wrote. And the university should educate all its members about its goals and values, in addition to “the importance of exercising our right of freedom of expression in a manner” that furthers those goals and values, “remembering that the exercise of intellectual freedom without consideration of these other values may cause needless harm to our community.”

Faculty, administrators, staff and students also should be encouraged to “model the civic behavior that forms the basis for the exercise of freedom of expression” within Colgate’s community. Consistent with the emphasis on free expression, the report doesn't call for those who lack in civility or respect to be punished.

The task force wrote that it kept three broad goals for Colgate in mind as it worked: growing in knowledge, becoming effective communicators and learning from multiple and diverse perspectives.

Considered separately, the goals are admirable, the report says. Considered together, “they aggregate to form a much loftier ambition: to share knowledge and foster understanding within a complex, rapidly changing and diverse world.”

Such an ambition requires a commitment to both a set of community values and principles of academic expression and academic freedom, the task force wrote. Supporting pillars include “shared values” of the Colgate community, such as empathy, curiosity, warmth of spirit, concern for others and pride in community. Another value is diversity, not just out of basic respect but also because “we recognize how much we need one another in order to consider new perspectives and extend the limits of our understanding.”

Colgate’s mission “requires an open mind and a spirit of toleration, even for positions we might abhor,” the committee wrote. “It likewise requires the courage to question what many might think unquestionable, to insist on clarity and rigor of thought, to seek out the strongest arguments on all sides of an issue, and to recognize that such arguments might be found in the quietest or most marginalized of voices.”

Another pillar, as articulated by the task force, is “commitment to freedom of expression and academic freedom.” Such freedom is not only a “crucial means for the pursuit of knowledge, but a constitutive part of it; propositions learned by rote, protected from challenge, do not further our pursuit of knowledge or our attainment of understanding,” the report says. Accordingly, the university should support a “climate of debate and deliberation that is open and robust, and must not suppress ideas because some consider them wrong, immoral or offensive.”

Not Without Boundaries

At the same time, freedom of expression and academic freedom are “not without boundaries,” the committee wrote. “There are certain forms of expression that stand outside the law, constitute no part of the search for truth and, accordingly, find no shelter here.” Such expressions include defamation, real threats of harassment, substantial invasions of privacy or inciting “lawless action.”

To promote and protect the free exchange of ideas, Colgate may adopt “content-neutral rules concerning time, manner and place of expression,” according to the committee. But such rules “must never be used as a pretext for the university to suppress disfavored opinions or compromise the principle of intellectual freedom.”

Crucially, the report urges Colgate to “be guided by the principles of the First Amendment and, within reason, to err on the side of permitting expression and inquiry without concern of punishment.”

Under the pillar of “flourishing” free inquiry, the task force wrote that the university’s commitment to freedom of expression and inquiry may occasionally come into conflict with certain shared values. And when that happens, freedom of expression should not be stifled in service of other values, the committee wrote. Still, these other values should be cultivated by example.

Another pillar, “consideration of exclusionary behavior, privilege and historical perspective,” says that Colgate, like broader society, has in the past practiced exclusion. But its commitment to freedom of expression provides “an important means of mitigating the negative impacts of exclusionary practices by giving voice to marginalized views,” the report says.

Spencer Kelly, task force chair and a professor of psychological and brain sciences, said that both Colgate’s and Chicago’s statements affirm academic freedom and freedom of expression as “foundational” for achieving the educational mission.

The key difference between the two documents, Kelly continued, is that “we recognize that while these principles are essential, they are not sufficient by themselves. They need help.”

A “healthy educational community” embraces the values of humility, good listening, empathy, curiosity and tolerance, Kelly said. And “we believe these values encourage speakers to think critically about what they say -- and how they say it -- in a way that ultimately encourages a more robust, insightful and productive discourse.”

Kelly said the following became something of a “mantra” to the task force: “With the freedom to express comes the responsibility to listen.”

The most effective communicators “don’t just open their mouths and haphazardly spill out whatever is on their minds,” he added. “They carefully listen to, or do their best to imagine, where their audience is coming from before they start speaking.”

Kelly said that “extra effort” actually benefits the speaker in that the speech better “hits its mark.” And the long-term community benefit is that in developing the habits of listening and perspective taking, “people would gradually all become more receptive to what others say.”

Casey said that the report “ultimately makes a statement about the behavior that is expected of those who live in an academic community.” Citing actual language in the report, he said it's “a model of civic behavior.”

In Our Time

“Needless to say,” he added, “this is desperately needed in our time.”

Nancy Ries, a professor of anthropology and peace and conflict studies and Russia expert who worked on the report with Kelly, said the broader political moment lent a “sharpness, an urgency and a realness” to their task. That’s even though committee members’ political positions and “diagnoses” varied widely, she said.

The timing “helped us to realize that freedom of expression is not a dusty nicety, it is our essential atmosphere -- it is the oxygen that can sustain us in our roles as thinkers, scholars, teachers, citizens,” she said. “My sense is we all knew that going into our meeting rooms, but the urgency and importance of our work helped to keep us going even when we got very mad at each other, which happened.”

Regarding the group’s own diversity, politically and otherwise, Ries said it provided an opportunity to consider what is “legally essential” to free speech and academic freedom -- namely, the First Amendment and various professional standards and statements -- but also “how discourse, conversation and public speech are profoundly social activities, processes through which communities of all kinds are both constituted and injured.”

The “strange thing,” Ries said, is that the task force recognized its “grounding and commitment” by observing “the hurt we could cause each other during pitched arguments in our meetings.” Members realized, gradually over the year, that they needed to be not just “clearheaded, outspoken, honest and brave” in their analyses and arguments, but also “watchful, aware, informed and compassionate” in their communication.

In the end, she said, the group recognized that it would wed “the uncompromising force” of a Chicago-style statement “with a projection of values we discovered ourselves to share, even across stark differences and diverse perspectives.”

Asked about process, Kelly was blunt, calling it “very slow and arduous.” Members approached the topic from “every possible perspective,” he said, resulting in disagreements and vigorous debate.

However, the "shared values" of humility, good listening, empathy, tolerance and curiosity articulated in the statement were agreed upon relatively earn on. Having that “foundation of trust,” and keeping the university’s mission in mind, helped the group move through challenges, he said.

Kelly added, “We believe that if 13 people with such strong and diverse views can come to consensus on such a difficult issue, there is hope that it can happen with our entire university community.”

In the Classroom

As to how the statement might impact Kelly’s teaching, he said the document captures what teachers do naturally: “carefully consider their audience before they speak” and “always try to meet students where they are.”

Yet the document will encourage Kelly to continue to re-evaluate how he attempts to engage students, he said.

Not so long ago, “I would try to get students’ attention by occasionally saying things that were intentionally a bit controversial or edgy.” Now, Kelly said, he’s much more careful, as he’d already noticed that the pedagogical practice worked well for some students but not for others.

Kelly’s “learning to pay more attention to where all students are coming from” and then trying to “say things more effectively to reach a wider range of them. It’s a lot harder to teach this way but, in the end, it's worth it.”

Derek Baker, the lone student on the task force, said the report emphasizes "listening as an essential component of free speech," which he described as "a compelling argument rarely discussed when the topic of freedom of speech is addressed."

Echoing his collaborators, Baker said, "Never before has the need for listeners been more necessary than it is today. This document reflects this growing need, giving ample recognition to both who is listening and who is speaking during civil discourse." That should resonate "with all student voices desiring to be heard," he said.

On Balance

Geoffrey Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law at Chicago, chaired the committee that wrote the Chicago statement. He said this week that his initial read of the Colgate statement was that it is “quite consistent” with his own institution’s. Colgate’s “spends more time discussing the need for civility and mutual respect,” he granted, but he pointed out that the Chicago statement addresses those values, too.

For reference, the Chicago statement says, in part, that the university “greatly values civility” and that “all members of the university community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect.” Yet it asserts that “concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”

On balance, Stone said, “I see it as essentially adopting the core principles of the Chicago statement, with just a bit more discussion of civility and mutual respect as important values -- but as values that cannot justify the restriction of speech.”

Kelly reiterated that the statements are similar in their embrace of freedom of expression. But he noted that his committee intentionally avoided references to civility because the word is “often used by majority groups to suppress marginalized voices.” It instead outlined “community values,” to promote civility “organically, from the bottom up,” he said. Free speech is not just a market of competing ideas, but also “a way for a community to act cooperatively to accomplish shared goals.”

Colgate’s task force also acknowledged the “dangers of unfettered free speech,” Kelly said, in that historically marginalized groups may not have equal access to it, and “speech that harms is different than speech that offends.”

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