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Middlebury College students turn their backs on speaker Charles Murray in 2017.


Middlebury College is one of many colleges and universities that have made national news for disinvitations, shutdowns and protests of outside speakers. Our campus was deeply divided over the shutdown of Charles Murray in 2017, and those divisions re-emerged last spring when he was invited back to campus. Since March, COVID-related health concerns and budget shortfalls have led to cancellations of outside speaker events at many colleges and universities. As campuses do slowly open up, we have a chance to reassess the way we engage with outside speakers.

The controversies around outside speakers are regularly cited as evidence that colleges fail to enable free expression and open inquiry. Yet, at a time of high polarization and low public trust, how can colleges and universities function as solemn cloisters in which every idea under the sun can be considered? College discussions can be better in tenor and broader in content than those in the public sphere, especially in classrooms with practiced facilitators as professors. Preserving open inquiry in college classrooms is especially important at a time where social distancing has limited interactions in the public sphere. But the open exploration of ideas and values at the heart of the academy falters when speech involves denying the equal position necessary for meaningful dialogue and truly open inquiry. As simply stated by Kwame Anthony Appiah, people don’t think well when they feel personally insulted.

To move forward, one important step would be for colleges and universities to recognize that the dominant model for hosting outside speakers is fundamentally flawed. Colleges must abandon the “sage on the stage” model for new formats where speakers invite audience members into dialogue -- and be willing to walk away from speakers who will not do so.

Wrong Diagnosis: The Chicago Principles Statement

Absolutist defenders of free speech on college campuses focus on enabling as much speech as possible, often citing the January 2015 Chicago Statement on Freedom of Expression as the “gold standard” for articulating these core principles. Wide-ranging discussions of difficult topics are absolutely essential to higher education. But there is little evidence that these reaffirmations of principles actually improve the quality of campus discussions. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the number of attempted or actual speaker disinvitations have increased, from 106 between 2011 and 2014 to 124 between 2015 and 2018. At the University of Chicago itself, there have been five speaker disinvitations since 2014.

These principled statements could be helpful if they generate broad discussion of institutional identity and shared values. PEN America hosts workshops, publishes research and has developed a Campus Free Speech guide. Other colleges have engaged with Sigal Ben-Porath’s principles of inclusive freedom -- a way to advance both free expression and equity. Ultimately, though, any statement of principles will be of little help if it reflects only one side of a divided campus or is issued as an administrative edict.

Proponents of free speech on campus like to say that unlimited speech is necessary because there are no unsettled questions. Clearly, however, one unsettled question is “What is the role of free speech on college campuses?” As Louis Michael Seidman argues, free speech advocates seem willing to revisit every question -- except when it comes to their views on the rights of speakers. Foundational questions about open inquiry and individual expression need to be truly open discussions, and proclamations about protecting speakers alone are wholly insufficient for building consensus or matching our practices with our stated values.

Practices: Alternatives to the Broken Model

In carefully structured settings, we can productively explore any topic if we have established ground rules to facilitate respect and understanding. But the existing “sage on the stage” model ignores dialogue in favor of a lengthy, one-way delivery of information. That may have been useful when books were expensive and communication difficult, but is unnecessary in an age of YouTube, PDFs and TED talks. This antiquated model is not only unnecessary but is also narrowly focused on the rights of the speaker while ignoring the role of the listeners -- even though their education is our core mission.

When colleges begin to open their doors to outsiders, the invitation to speak on a college campus should be presented as an invitation into an intellectual community, with responsibilities to the members of that community. This commitment to the exchange of ideas takes advantage of the special element of campus talks -- they bring many different people from a community together in one place.

A growing menu of practices can help speakers fulfill those responsibilities. At Middlebury, we have been experimenting with a different speaker format in which speakers have time to present their ideas and audience members discuss them together in small groups. Here, we follow many professors who have already abandoned the straight lecture in the classroom, building student dialogue and engagement into their courses. Other institutions also use dialogic practices. The University of Pennsylvania and Emory University, for instance, have “open expression observers” who are trained to facilitate dialogue in heated moments. Williams College recommends using panels or dialogue formats. At Middlebury, one speaker series is mostly an informal Q&A session. Taken together, these approaches move beyond general statements of principle. They are real changes that tell our students that the conversation is for them.

The Way Forward: A Commitment to Dialogue at Events

The “free speech on campus” frame privileges the rights of speakers and disregards the essential role of listening in education. Instead of rearticulating sweeping principles that only protect speakers, we should pay careful attention to developing new dialogic practices for visitors. The new is always uncomfortable, however, and I can foresee several possible objections.

Objection 1: Some ideas are underrepresented on college campuses, so limiting the amount of time the speaker talks further reduces students’ exposure to those ideas.

Unpopular ideas blasted at students for any length of time are unlikely to open minds. With digital devices and expensive library subscriptions, college students do not lack access to positions on controversial issues. The problem is underconsideration of those views. A format that allows students to participate as equals, to react and engage in the moment in dialogue with others, can invite students to listen openly and seek understanding.

Objection 2: It is unfair to require a new format for only “controversial” speakers, as this disadvantages minority viewpoints on college campuses.

That is correct -- which is why all events should build in audience engagement and dialogue. The national media focuses on speaker protests and disinvitations, but most campus talks actually suffer from the opposite problem: they generate limited interest and are poorly attended.

In our new format, we begin talks by asking audience members to introduce themselves to the people sitting around them and explain why they are interested in the subject. We then return to these small groups before the Q&A. If a speaker is not willing to give up a little time for these moments of dialogue, that is useful information about the speaker’s intentions. Importantly, dialogic formats are also content-neutral. Any viewpoint is welcome, as long as the speaker comes to exchange ideas.

Objection 3: Pledges don’t work for events designed by many people (an argument made here).

Any one person can make this happen. Many events on college campuses are designed by committee. But speaker invitations are entirely decentralized, in line with core principles of academic freedom. Any member of any college faculty could decide today to change the way they give talks or host speakers -- could pledge that: 1) the speaker will take up no more than half the allotted time and 2) audience members will talk with one another as well as with the speaker.

Objection 4: Famous speakers will resist a new format or object to audience critique.

That should not be seen as a problem. The ideas industry is supported in part by demand from higher education. We can change those demands. For example, if Frank Bruni of The New York Times does not want the audience to reflect in small groups on his ideas, or engage at length with our students, we are under no obligation to host and pay him. In fact, after a column quite critical of Middlebury, Bruni did use the new speaker format at our college with an audience of 400-plus people -- and the event was great. Some speakers actually prefer a setup that enables robust interaction with the audience. For example, former ACLU president Nadine Strossen, on a tour to discuss her book on hate speech, explicitly asks her campus hosts to set up panels or interviews.

Objection 5: This doesn’t get rid of the challenge of hosting controversial speakers.

True -- but it moves toward a more level playing field. Many protesters object to the idea of giving speakers a platform without being challenged. Dialogic formats are a step toward leveling the playing field, requiring speakers to agree to some responsibility to the audience and “share airtime.”

Finally, if hosts and speakers do not design events that invite audience engagement, we can stay away. Many hosts of controversial speakers state that their goal is a civil dialogue. Audience members do not control the format and invitation list for many campus talks, but we are in full control of the decision of whether or not to attend these events. We can vote with our feet, staying away from talks and instead participating in dialogues with visitors that come to speak and listen. Only then can our colleges and universities realize the full value of the new information and differing viewpoints that outsiders bring to our intellectual communities.

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