Opinion

When talk grows cheap on campus, maybe it’s time to try listening

Muhlenberg’s leader explains what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a racial slur and why we need freedom of speech anyway

As 2016 begins, it’s time to look at how the ground beneath colleges and universities has shifted in recent months. On a growing number of campuses, students have been expressing their outrage and impatience regarding racism and the underlying issue of an inequitable distribution of power.

This seismic activity has resulted from the convergence of two tectonic plates: 1) the Black Lives Matter movement that has arisen from the fatal shootings by white police officers of several unarmed black males, including Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and 2) the frustration felt by students of color because, despite decades of effort, full equity remains out of reach for too many people of color.

Students’ feelings are grounded in an ongoing reality too often ignored. The stories from students on my campus at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, remind me of the racism I experienced growing up black in America: segregation in housing and public schools, racial profiling and police harassment, unwarranted shadowing in retail stores, racial slurs at public gatherings, etc. In many, if not most parts of our nation, people are working hard to make these behaviors a part of the past. However, far too often, they persist.

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More subtle behaviors, often cited by students, are called microaggressions. My father in law, psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce, coined the term in 1970 to describe the insults and dismissals that non-black Americans inflicted on African Americans as he observed them in his research. A single microaggression can seem minor, but when many accumulate, they create an atmosphere of oppression that sustains and punctuates inequality.

As a black man, I have been on the receiving end of many microaggressions over the course of my life, and have witnessed many more around me.

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As college and university presidents, it’s essential to empower everyone on our campuses to have a voice, and to find the courage to use it publicly. We must encourage people to speak up and speak out on this topic. Indeed, we must embrace the tried and true standard as we do in all safety related issues: “If you see something, say something.”

It is crucial that the passive bystander speaks out on racial issues, just as that is needed in other instances of power imbalances, such as hazing and sexual assault. We need to create campus cultures where bystanders are not only empowered to speak up, but where they feel it is part of their community responsibility to do so.

One of the first changes I made at Muhlenberg was to remove previous restrictions on demonstrations and protests. If free speech can’t thrive on college campuses, where can it? So, it’s perplexing to find that a modern tool designed to enable and foster free expression may have gone a bridge too far. The social media app YikYak permits people in a close geographical radius of approximately two miles (ideal for a college campus) to post comments on any topic, and to do so anonymously. YikYak’s anonymity feature enables anyone to express their most outrageous thoughts without risk to reputation or retribution from those offended.

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In essence, YikYak has removed all of society’s moderating influences on speech. It is hard to imagine a more incendiary platform for college campuses filled with 18-22 year-olds in search of finding and expressing their political and social identities.

In fact, it was an escalating exchange on YikYak that led me to call a town hall meeting on my campus last month. After reviewing several inappropriate posts late one evening, I called for an all-campus, “Speak Out, Listen In” meeting. I hoped to give all members of our community the courage to speak out, and encouraged all to have the courtesy to listen to the perspectives of others on the topic of race and racism. Despite the short notice, about 900 people attended; the largest such meeting on Muhlenberg’s campus in living memory. I was delighted by the turnout, and I couldn’t be prouder of how many of our students spoke their minds and shared their feelings on this important topic, and that all perspectives were treated with respect.

Based on the feedback I have received, I encourage all college presidents to invest the time to listen and provide the resources to enable students to have productive and effective voices. But we must also do more than talk. At Muhlenberg, we are committed to taking concrete steps toward a more just and equitable community. Those steps certainly include increased numbers of students, faculty, and staff of color. In addition, however, we are taking steps aimed at fostering a campus culture where everyone 1) Judges people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character; 2) Treats others the way they would want to be treated themselves; and 3) Encourages all to say something when they see something.

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Why is all of this so important? Social justice is a moral imperative in every community. Today’s college graduates, over the course of their lives, are going to engage with people from all different cultures and backgrounds, far more so than the graduates from fifty years ago. If we want our students to succeed, they all need a safe and supportive place to study and work so that they can grow, develop, and thrive.

As recent events have shown, all colleges and universities are in this together. Accordingly, in addition to finding solutions for our individual campuses, we leaders need to come together to explore more pervasive, systematic solutions.

We need a culture of respect for all races, religions, gender, disabilities, notions of beauty, and other external criteria by which people judge one another. Now more than ever before — in the wake of Paris, Mali, Rwanda, Kosovo, South Sudan, and Ferguson — our world and our nation needs to develop a pervasive, dominant culture of mutual understanding and respect.

American colleges and universities can be examples for all to follow. After all, isn’t that one of the primary reasons we exist?

John Williams is the president of Muhlenberg College.

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John Williams

John Williams is the president of Muhlenberg College. See Archive

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