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Hardly a week passes without news of a campus speaker flare-up. We watch and wonder who will be next. Yet what can we learn from the less publicized events, those that take place without incident?

As others have done, our university developed a Statement on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression to help achieve a key educational goal: “to share knowledge and foster understanding within a complex, rapidly changing, and diverse world.” To realize this aim, the statement continues, it is necessary to not only vigorously support expression of diverse voices on the Colgate University campus, but also commit to cultivating a community that can effectively share and receive those voices. Doing the former without the latter can lead to spectacular failures.

Accomplishing these two things is easier said than done, and we have a recent example to share from a visit by the controversial author, linguist and Columbia University associate professor John McWhorter. Ours was a three-part process, and it not only illustrates tangible ways to prepare a campus for a challenging guest but, more broadly, offers strategies for bridging campus divides to help people share and receive diverse voices in the long run.

Initial Cost-Benefit Evaluation

First, some context: McWhorter has written and spoken extensively about various social issues related to language. Colgate’s linguistics program initially wanted to invite him to speak about dialects and standard forms of language. In addition, Colgate’s Center for Freedom and Western Civilization was interested in the topic’s larger societal implications. Because the two units had very different ideological perspectives on the subject, it seemed like an exciting opportunity to team up, learn more about each other and co-sponsor the visit.

The first and most important step happened long before any invitation was made. Early on, faculty members from both groups, led by the two authors, carefully discussed whether McWhorter was the best person to talk about this particular subject. This was hard because, on the one hand, he is an eloquent, thoughtful and bold expert on exactly the topic that interested us—but on the other hand, his recent work challenging certain antiracist ideologies is quite controversial on campus. We took this tension seriously and, after much deliberation, concluded that the educational benefits of his talk on linguistics outweighed the concerns about his other views.

After this preliminary decision, we expanded the discussion. In addition to many casual conversations with a variety of students and colleagues, the authors had more official meetings with key leaders at Colgate: the provost/dean of faculty, the chief diversity officer, and an influential member of Colgate’s Faculty Diversity Council (an autonomous group advocating for BIPOC faculty issues). To be clear, this was not to ask permission for an invitation; rather, it was an opportunity to present our evaluation of the benefits and drawbacks of the potential visit, and then listen carefully to any concerns we hadn't considered. In our case, these discussions confirmed our original assessment, but they also gave us many useful ideas for later in the process.

This sort of cost-benefit analysis—involving a highly diverse group of students, faculty and administrators—helps to disrupt groupthink by including voices that are typically absent from early stages of planning. It also builds trust and rapport between people who have very different viewpoints. And precisely because of these differences, it requires always keeping focused on the educational purpose of the visit. This last part is crucial for nurturing campus receptivity: if a speaker is invited to genuinely enlighten and engage, instead of just provoking controversy, it can foster trust in the wider community and open up people to new ideas.

Focused Campus Conversations

After making an invitation, we expanded our conversations even more. From previous discussions, we knew that McWhorter’s critiques of certain forms of antiracism made some groups on campus uncomfortable, so we set out to talk with them. The first thing we did was to explain how the visit served Colgate’s educational goals. For example, we explained that some linguistics faculty had been using McWhorter’s work in their courses—to great effect—so his visit would greatly enrich those classes.

Next, we carefully listened to people’s concerns. By taking these seriously without being defensive, we were able to better understand why people were upset, while also showing that we genuinely cared. We had a number of these conversations informally and also set up more formal meetings with established organizations.

One influential meeting was with Colgate’s Intergroup Dialogue (IGD) council. IGD stresses the importance of building caring relationships among people from diverse backgrounds to ultimately foster mutual understanding. We learned a lot from our conversation, but one thing stood out: in a recent visit, a provocative and combative speaker showed lack of care and empathy toward distressed students, and this produced lingering mistrust and animosity on campus. Given the polemic tone of McWhorter’s recent work, people were worried that he might treat students in a similar way.

In relaying these concerns to McWhorter and our co-sponsors, we had some hard but productive conversations. Although these discussions reinforced our shared conviction that Colgate should vigorously support diverse voices on campus when they clearly serve its educational mission—as with the planned visit—there was also a growing recognition that in advancing those voices, there comes a responsibility to care about potential negative effects on the community. We think this recognition ultimately encouraged the group, including McWhorter, to approach the visit with even more empathy and care, which in turn made those concerned more receptive to it.

If this step goes well, distant groups on campus can start to understand one another better. For example, we worked with people across the entire political spectrum, and by serving as go-betweens, we opened up preliminary lines of communication among them. A second big benefit came directly to us as intermediaries. We learned more about our campus, and the varied viewpoints on it, than we ever could have from any article, book or training session—or outside speaker, for that matter. If this process becomes the norm on campus, it has the long-term benefit of increasing the number of people who can understand fellow community members with very different perspectives.

Organize a Campuswide Event

Based on everything learned up to this point, we sensed that the campus would benefit from a larger event building up to the visit. In our case, we borrowed an established model at Colgate called a “speakeasy.” A speakeasy gathers a diverse group of students, faculty and staff members to discuss an intellectually and emotionally stimulating topic in a lively and friendly social setting. Crucially, it is not a debate with winners and losers: it’s more of an attentive group discussion with the explicit goal of better understanding one another.

The plan of the event was not to talk directly about the visit, but just to have a candid conversation about the topic more generally. A key element was to involve many of the people we had already met in earlier conversations. It is challenging to create a space where a highly diverse group feels comfortable sharing personal views, and that is why it is so important to plan such an event after getting to know many of the participants.

The speakeasy went better than we could have hoped. It was scheduled for two hours, but all 30 people in attendance stayed longer, and many continued the conversation over the next several weeks right up to McWhorter’s visit.

The goal of this step is to deepen mutual understanding, and events like this can prepare for a difficult visit by humanizing a complex subject. Working hard to understand other people’s experiences and stories can break down binary “right vs. wrong” thinking, and this helps people approach the issue with more nuance and sophistication, opening them up to views that they might have once dismissed.

Thinking Big

In the end, McWhorter’s visit was a big success. This is not to say that everyone agreed with him (some people asked him challenging questions) or that everyone was thrilled to have him on campus (others opted out of his talk). Still, the lecture drew a large and diverse crowd—including people who originally expressed reservations—and sparked many stimulating questions from the audience. Some of the best questions came from students who attended the speakeasy, and even after McWhorter’s presentation, many of them lined up, eager to ask more. Faculty took note and praised the high level of student engagement.

In the weeks that followed, several people told us that they had become more receptive to McWhorter’s visit because they not only saw its educational value, they also appreciated having their concerns taken seriously. It can be unsettling for anyone to receive a speaker on campus who challenges your most cherished beliefs, so when a university acknowledges and attends to that discomfort, it builds trust and helps people open up.

It’s wonderful when a visit goes well, but this process is about much more. It’s about developing healthy habits that will pay off in the long run. It’s about always keeping focused on the university’s educational mission, it’s about working across differences to build new relationships and it’s about being open to diverse voices, while also caring about their effects on others. These benefits stay on campus long after a visit is over.

This process applies to more than just preparing for an outside speaker. It is a basic approach that can help innovate teaching, invigorate research and enrich service. Cultivating an academic community that can effectively share and receive the widest range of voices greatly empowers those voices and allows a university to truly live up to its mission.

Spencer D. Kelly is the Hurley Family Chair in Dialogue, Deliberation, and Decision Making, professor of psychological science and neuroscience, and co-director of the Center for Language and Brain at Colgate University. Kelly served as chair of Colgate’s Task Force on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression. Yukari Hirata is the Harrington and Shirley Drake Professor of Japanese and Linguistics, chair of the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, co-director of the Center for Language and Brain, and director of the linguistics program at Colgate University.

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