The Role and Responsibility of the University to Foster Civil Dialogue
The environment on college campuses has taken on an unexpected tone in the last few years, causing one college president to remark, “This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!” His reference was to students who ask to be protected from speech and opinions they do not wish to hear (1). Explosive student protests over controversial speakers have alarmed and outraged college administrators, faculty and students, politicians of all ilk, and the general public. Speakers representing conservative viewpoints have been shouted down or disinvited at Middlebury and University of California at Berkeley, to name a few. An ACLU representative speaking on First Amendment rights was shouted off the stage at William and Mary. Freedom of speech and a willingness to listen to opposing views is being tested in our nation’s hallowed halls of intellectual inquiry.
While anecdotal reports of boycotting speakers make great headlines, a deeper look at polls of young people’s attitudes are illuminating. The General Social Survey recently found that “the public is growing more tolerant, and that young people…aged 18 to 34 are the most likely to support free speech.” The group polled was not limited to college students. Yet, in a different poll of only college students, 58 percent responded that they did not want “to be exposed to intolerant and offensive ideas” at college. Interestingly, 48 percent “think the First Amendment should not protect hate speech” (2).
Historian Jill Lepore tracks the “flip-flopping” in attitudes among college students over the last half century, noting that “…between the elections of Governor Reagan and President Trump, the left and the right would appear to have switched sides, the left fighting against free speech and the right fighting for it” (3).
Historically, a liberal arts education “emphasized civic duty and the development of the whole human being…. the main goal for free citizens of Greece and Rome was to participate in civic life.” Thomas Jefferson’s purpose in building UVA was to educate students for the professions and prepare them to be future government leaders” (4). Jefferson believed “An imperative of healthy democracy …is a body politic made up of well-informed, engaged, and empowered citizens, not least because they are often the source of the best ideas about how they should be governed.” Several hundred years later, university dean, Marissa Kelly, echoed Jefferson saying, “You cannot educate students to be morally responsible leaders if they are not committed to civil discourse” (5).
A number of states have legislated free speech on campuses. On March 20, President Trump signed an executive order requiring public academic institutions to exercise “free enquiry” as requisite for federal funding, even though colleges must uphold free speech under the constitution like everyone else.
Well before the presidential order, colleges were developing new initiatives to promote civil discourse. The University of New Hampshire employs Study Circles on campus and in the community. The University of Michigan assembled an “Intergroup Dialogue” on campus, and for 40 years the Kettering Foundation, with Franklin Pierce College, has used a National Issues Forums model for civil discussion (6).
A report entitled A Crucible Moment: College Learning & Democracy’s Future “builds a strong case for higher education’s responsibility, in collaboration with the larger society, for assuring that all students have the skills and knowledge they need to become informed, civically engaged citizens.” Students will also need to be “empowered by possessing a range of intellectual and practical skills. Civil discourse, a central skill of such civic learning, itself rests on core intellectual abilities at the very heart of powerful education…”(7).
The president of California State University–Monterey Bay maintains that “as a university, and by virtue of our mission and values, we [are] ideally situated to exemplify the respectful inquiry and dialogue that our nation needs to bridge the divide reflected in our political process and exacerbated by social media, socioeconomic segregation, rising inequality, and other social forces” (8).
- Everett Piper, “This is Not a Day Care. It’s a University!” Oklahoma Wesleyan University, January 17, 2019, original statement given December 1, 2015. LINK
- Robby Soave, “Some Pundits Say There’s No Campus Free Speech ‘Crisis.’ Here’s Why They’re Wrong.” Reason, March 19, 2018. LINK
- Jill Lepore. “Flip-Flopping on Free Speech: the fight for the First Amendment, on campuses and football fields, from the sixties to today.” The New Yorker, October 9, 2007. LINK
- “History of a Liberal Arts Education,” Liberal Arts School Review, March 31, 2017. LINK
- Terence S. Morrow. “The State of Civil Discourse on Campus and in Society,” Intersections, 33, 2011. LINK
- Andrea Leskes. “A Plea for Civil Discourse: Needed, the Academy’s Leadership.” Liberal Education, 99 no.4 (Fall 2013). LINK
- Leskes, “A Plea for Civil Discourse,” citing the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement (2012). LINK
- Eduardo M. Ochoa. “Bridging the American Political Divide: The Role of Higher Education in Advancing Civil Discourse Spring/Summer.” Diversity & Democracy, 20 ⅔, 2017. LINK.
Andrea Leskes. “A Plea for Civil Discourse: Needed, the Academy’s Leadership.” Liberal Education, 99 no. 4 (Fall 2013). LINK