The proposed loyalty oath at Bergen Community College (BCC) continues to make news, with Inside Higher Ed running an article today. For those who are reading about this for the first time, the proposed oath is as follows:
In the full knowledge of the commitment that I am freely willing to undertake as a student, I promise to respect each and every member of the college community without regard to race, creed, political ideology, lifestyle orientation, gender, or social status sparing no effort to preserve the dignity of those I will come in contact with as a member of the college community. I promise to Bergen Community College that I will follow this code of responsibility.
1. Honesty, integrity, and respect for all will guide my personal conduct.
2. I will embrace and celebrate differing perspectives intellectually.
3. I will build an inclusive community enriched by diversity.
4. I am willing to respect and assist those individuals who are less fortunate.
5. I promise my commitment to civic engagement and to serve the needs of the community to the best of my ability.
The debate over the oath has been tremendously encouraging in some ways, with BCC faculty members making powerful statements in favor of the rights to free speech and freedom of conscience. George Cronk, the chair of BCC’s philosophy and religion department and a leader in BCC’s faculty union, told Inside Higher Ed that the policy is “objectionable in almost every way,” noting that “[t]he words ‘inclusiveness and diversity’ are used in academia these days virtually as religious incantations.” Cronk added, “These terms have a coercive effect. You can’t really say what you mean. You have to be very careful with your language, and it seems like a form of thought control.”
However, as encouraging as some faculty members’ comments have been, some of the absurdities coming out of the mouths of BCC spokespeople have been equally discouraging. According to Inside Higher Ed,
[University spokesperson Susan] Baechtel added that the policy was drafted with knowledge of the murders at Virginia Tech. “Virginia Tech is starting to frame our thoughts on this,” she said.
Is she actually, conceivably suggesting that the Virginia Tech tragedy could have been avoided if only Seung-Hui Cho had signed a loyalty oath promising to help build an inclusive community and practice integrity in his personal conduct? To say that this strains credibility might be the understatement of the year, but unfortunately, I fear this is a view that is all too common and leads to many restrictions on campus speech: that if only we could force people to suppress their views and superficially commit to a restrictive speech or behavior code that prohibits any type of incivility, nothing bad would ever happen on campus. Unfortunately, this is just wishful thinking, and it is dangerous thinking because it leads directly to campus censorship.
As an initial matter, regarding Virginia Tech, it is simply impossible to draw a connection between the acts of someone who most likely suffered from serious mental illness and the lack of a civility policy on campus. To think that a civility policy could actually prevent such a tragedy is impossibly naïve. And with regard to a campus climate that is tense but not actually dangerous, if anything diffuses tension on campus and in society generally, it is allowing divergent views to be aired, not pushing them underground where they will almost certainly fester and grow. Universities need to permanently dispense with the idea that forcing people’s beliefs underground will actually change those beliefs, and find constructive ways to promote a positive climate on campus without censoring their students.