The higher-education sector has witnessed significant angst and change during my lengthy career — from violent protests over what were believed to be unjust wars to increases in representational diversity to affirmative action challenges decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Yet our recent propensity to disinvite speakers who are controversial, or with whom we don’t agree, is tearing our campuses apart.
That’s precisely why we invited Karl Rove, political strategist and former deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush, to our campus this past spring to share his perspectives on U.S. immigration policy.
Rove was the fourth and final participant in a speaker series at the University of Richmond that presents competing views on topics crucial to our nation and global society.
This past fall, we offered similar hospitality to Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and advocate who has written extensively about his life in America as an undocumented immigrant.
In fact, during the question-and-answer period, we asked Rove what advice he would give Vargas and other undocumented Americans who seemingly have no pathway to legal citizenship. Rove gave a heartfelt (and likely surprising to some) answer, suggesting immediate bipartisan action and compromise through a five-part plan that included DACA concessions, a border wall in some form, and a legal — yet fair — pathway for those who contribute to the nation’s economy and are educated and law-abiding.
Given recent turmoil over invited speakers on some campuses, we had a detailed security plan in place, additional (and plain-clothed) officers and space set aside for protesters both outside and inside the venue. At the start of our program we held up the right of free expression, yet were prepared to remove anyone who restricted the rights of others to listen and learn. We were prepared to act, but there were no public outbursts.
After the event, Rove held court in a public reception — laughing, conversing and taking photos. Earlier in the day, he was a guest at a luncheon with faculty and students, spoke to a class on leadership, and dined with the College Republicans. During the class, students vigorously challenged his opinions on gun control and the Iraq War, among other topics, but the discussion never turned rancorous or rude.
Students, it turns out, want the chance to hear different perspectives along the political spectrum. But in a Gallup poll released and supported by the Knight Foundation, 92 percent of students said they believed that political liberals could “freely and openly” express their views on campus while only 69 percent of students said that conservatives enjoyed such freedoms. (Disclosure: the Knight Foundation is among the various supporters of The Hechinger Report.) Overall, 61 percent of students, a sizable majority, said that their campus climate prevented some people from speaking freely. In the current climate, it appears that those most likely to be silenced are those who hold politically conservative viewpoints.
These data should be alarming to us. Not because of the political story they tell, but because of the limitations they suggest on our capacity for robust and multi-faceted campus dialogue. As campus leaders, we must be unapologetic champions for the free and open exchange of ideas and for the potential of debate and discussion to transform society.
Colleagues I know and respect have been blindsided by active disruptions of campus programs and forced to confront bullies who aim to restrict the very freedoms they claim to cherish. Our mission, as academic institutions, is to stand up to this dangerous brand of civic chicanery.
We need to use these moments to teach — about First Amendment protections, the difference between hate speech and offensive speech, and the characteristics of legal and civil demonstrations. When we welcome speakers espousing all viewpoints into our classrooms and lecture halls, we must fearlessly defend their right to be here. Usher them through the front door, so to speak, and celebrate the debate while holding everyone accountable for their actions.
This is the purpose of higher education: to interrogate truths, support arguments with fact and reason, discover new knowledge and create greater understanding. We know that students learn best when they’re challenged to tackle hard questions, and when they’re taught to have these conversations in thoughtful ways. Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned, and have an explicit responsibility, to model substantive disagreement and dialogue that foster change — to give students information they can take into the classroom, living room, workplace and voting booth.
Anyone with a voice and an opinion can shout down a speaker. But listening requires patience, empathy and intellect — the building blocks of civility. If we hope to compromise, we need both sides of each argument to find common ground, and to respect the diversity of perspectives and backgrounds that color these opinions.
Meaningful progress rarely comes without a tussle, and substantive conversations are never one-sided. The world our students will enter after graduation is replete with such struggles and difficult discussions. As campus leaders, we have a duty to lead by example and prepare them for the exercise.