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Amid Campus Protests, University Presidents Push Dialogue and Engagement

By November 18, 2015

University of Maryland (UMD) President Wallace D. Loh wrote an interesting and thoughtful opinion piece this week for TIME’s Ideas blog. It addressed how a university administrator and the larger campus community can respond to student protests against racial injustice while upholding free speech protections for unpopular speech. He emphasized that both are important components of a rich academic marketplace of ideas.  

To illustrate his points, Loh recalled an incident that occurred at UMD earlier this year and unearthed many of the same tensions that a number of American campuses have been experiencing in recent weeks. In the spring of 2015, an email went viral that was written by a UMD student the previous year. The email, sent to fellow fraternity brothers, contained racial slurs and appeared to advocate sexual assault. It caused an uproar on campus and led to demands for the offending student to be expelled.

The student was investigated, but the university ultimately determined that, while “hateful and repugnant,” the speech was protected by the First Amendment. FIRE advocated at the time for this result. Afterwards, Loh reports that the student voluntarily undertook training in diversity and sexual assault. Nonetheless, as Loh states:

Many students demanded immediate expulsion, and voiced their hurt and anger when he was not. They deemed these restorative justice measures unacceptable; they considered the outcome to be a tacit approval of his hateful words. Others considered it a vindication of the First Amendment.

But Loh makes a really good point about these supposed camps: Those demanding protection for hurtful speech and those demanding protection from it “often end up talking past each other.” He emphasizes that a robust and healthy academic marketplace of ideas requires both that student protesters have the space to air racial grievances and that they “learn the importance of openly and vigorously contesting ideas they oppose rather than seeking their suppression.”

Loh suggests that creating a “safe space” for students is about creating a forum for the airing of views:

Students on the receiving end of offensive language and hateful vandalism feel vulnerable and intimidated. … [T]here is time to hear and acknowledge grievances, whether or not we agree with them, and however they are expressed. That, too, is part of the academic marketplace.

On the other hand, Loh recognizes that resilience to attacks and offensive speech is equally essential to the development of true dialogue and learning in an academic environment. UMD’s handling of the student’s offensive email earlier this year suggests his administration appropriately does not interpret creating a “safe space” as encompassing the ability to reach into other forums and censor speech, despite the hurt it may cause.

With regard to recent (and past) student protests, Loh also reminds readers that administrations must respond to student calls for action, “regardless of whether we can satisfy specific demands.” Indeed, university administrators across the country right now are being asked to address, as Loh puts it, “the underlying conditions that give rise to legitimate grievances,” as well as calls by First Amendment advocates, including FIRE, not to suppress hurtful or offensive speech.

Some administrators are showing that it is possible to talk with students about ways forward while upholding institutional values that may find themselves in tension. In a November 15 statement on campus protests, Amherst President Biddy Martin responded to a list of protester demands in a manner that was admirably honest, responsive to the protesters’ message, and affirming of free speech values.

Amherst anti-racism protesters had provided Martin with an enumerated list of demands meant to address institutional racism on campus, some of which amounted to blatant censorship of opposing viewpoints (see, for example, demand number 5). In a statement she read aloud to protesters engaged in a sit-in in Amherst’s Frost Library, Martin candidly said she did not intend to respond to the demands item by item as articulated, but would be responsive to the spirit of what they were trying to achieve. To that end, she in turn enumerated a list of specific goals that the administration would work towards in conversation with the university community. She also articulated a clear commitment to free expression and the importance of uncomfortable dialogue:

The College also has a foundational and inviolable duty to promote free inquiry and expression, and our commitment to them must be unshakeable if we are to remain a college worthy of the name. The commitments to freedom of inquiry and expression and to inclusivity are not mutually exclusive, in principle, but they can and do come into conflict with one another. Honoring both is the challenge we have to meet together, as a community. It is a challenge that all of higher education needs to meet.

[…]

Student protesters themselves are engaged in serious conversations about the importance of free speech and have asked themselves questions about uses of language that respect that freedom. They are also asking themselves and us how the College protects free expression while also upholding our anti-discrimination policies and our statement of Respect for Persons.  Censorship and silencing are not the answer. I believe our students know that. It takes time, attention, and serious discussion to sort out and make clear how we protect free speech while also establishing norms within our communities that encourage respect and make us responsible for what we do with our freedom.  That is the discussion we need to have.  It must involve all members of the community—students, faculty, staff, alumni—and it must be the kind of discussion that reflects the traditions of Amherst and a liberal arts education at its best.

Amherst student protesters reported to MassLive this week that they were pleased with the support received from Martin. Hopefully the campus discussion of values, views, disagreement, honesty, and community growth Martin envisions in her statement has begun and will continue.

Loh’s and Martin’s comments reflect a balanced and respectful approach by administrators to a tumultuous, emotional, sometimes angry, sometimes joyous, sometimes painful moment in student protest on American campuses. They ask their communities for dialogue, the space to speak and to listen, tolerance of disagreement, and the strength to keep turning towards engagement, even when it’s most difficult. We hope to see administrators across the country make such a commitment to the academic marketplace of ideas and keep it.

Schools: Amherst College University of Maryland – College Park