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The Problem With “Proactive” Universities

At a recent Intelligence Squared debate, Wesleyan University President Michael Roth made an interesting statement. As a Wesleyan student myself, his statement was particularly intriguing.  Roth, who has written extensively on higher education issues, was discussing the nature of harm and the various ways in which the imposition of harm can be defined or considered a punishable offense by a university administration. Roth argued, “We’re not in a position where we have to wait for repetitive harassment to occur so it meets the legal definition. We can be proactive. Because when students go to college, they aren’t signing up for a marketplace, they’re signing up for a community.” As an example of what universities should be proactive against, Roth mentioned a religious student whose ideas in the classroom weren’t taken seriously on Wesleyan’s secular campus; Roth’s ideal university would be proactive in ensuring its students feel respected and taken seriously.

(Of course, as a private university, Wesleyan is free to prioritize other values over freedom of speech, so it doesn’t need to follow the constitutional standards that are mandatory at a public university. However, Wesleyan has chosen to promise both freedom of speech and academic freedom, so unless it changes its policies, the university could be failing to deliver on both promises.)

It’s unclear what President Roth means when he says “proactive,” but I see two possible interpretations. The better interpretation (with respect to freedom of speech) would be that universities should be proactive in teaching students the values of mutual respect and open dialogue. On the other hand, a more worrying interpretation would be that Roth thinks universities should actively punish students who don’t live up to those aspirational values.

In an ideal world, professors and administrators would encourage students to take other people’s ideas seriously, to be willing to debate ideas without resorting to ad hominem attacks, and to avoid marginalizing others because of perceived differences. Much of the usefulness of freedom of speech is that it allows people to engage with ideas to which they aren’t normally exposed. The promotion of mutual respect and open dialogue helps free speech flourish, as it allows people to debate their differing ideas to gain a better sense of the truth. Everyone has his or her own unique perspective on the world; by discussing and debating these perspectives, people can work together to better understand the truth. If Roth is suggesting that universities proactively promote serious debate, then it’s hard to take issue with his argument.

But it seems more likely, based on how he framed his statement, that President Roth is suggesting that universities be proactive in punishing students. Specifically, Roth seems to be implying that administrators should punish students for being disrespectful towards others, making them feel like they’re not part of the community, and/or other, similarly ambiguous offenses.

There are numerous problems with this philosophy. For starters, Roth’s suggestion about harassment lacks a clear standard. Is he suggesting any personal attack against an individual be punished? Or should students be punished for merely making others feel like they’re not part of the community?

Wesleyan’s current policies are just as unclear as the ones Roth proposes in the debate, and they share the same fundamental problem: Without a clear-cut standard for harassment, students are more likely to self-censor to protect themselves from administrative punishment, or administrators will likely wield unjust amounts of power against students. Either scenario is bad for freedom of speech. As I’ve previously written, vague speech policies allow for students to be punished for speech that is obviously not harassment, nor offensive enough to warrant punishment.

Moreover, it is fundamentally more beneficial for students to fully know each other than it is for communities to be enforced by administrators. If people can speak freely, they can reveal their truest self. This would enable students to form communities on campuses, by knowing not only to whom they can relate, but also who they might want to avoid.

But perhaps this is an unfair interpretation of what Roth is suggesting. At another point in the debate, he says, “I wouldn’t come to class and say ‘Michael got married, let’s debate [whether or not he should’ve been able to.]’ What would be a real issue is: ‘What is the nature of marriage, and how should we define it?’ If you can take it away from an attack...and turn it into a conversation about the principles at stake, and have everyone in the class realize that...they can make a mistake, and there won’t be retaliation...It’s safe enough for them to tolerate the debate without feeling that they are excluded from the community.”

If this is what Roth wants universities to be “proactive” about, then he’s essentially suggesting they hire good professors, the kind who are capable of leading discussions and open dialogue. But, again, it’s still not clear; he doesn’t mention the roles of professors vs. administrators in creating this kind of “safe space” at universities, nor does he clarify if students should be punished for personal attacks against other students even if those attacks don’t meet the legal definition of harassment.

It might sound like I’m splitting hairs, but details matter. As Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post writes, “Vague speech is the enemy of free speech.” Unclear rules are more likely to make students self-censor, or allow for abuses of power against students; in the process, freedom of speech will suffer. If Roth really wants universities to become “safe spaces,” he needs to clarify exactly how they should go about getting there.

Henry Spiro is a rising senior at Wesleyan University.

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