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:
- Keep it short and simple, so it can be understood and remembered.
- 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.”
- Keep it up-to-date, so that it encompasses changing situations.
- 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.