more than free speech

[In response to conversations regarding free speech on campus, a president of a small college offers a response]:

On campuses, however, we must strive for something more than free speech. Our mission requires that we seek what I refer to as constructive engagement. It is not enough for individuals to speak freely. We must also find myriad ways to put a range of views into conversation with one another. It is what we do in classrooms every day. It is what we do on debate teams. It is what happens across every campus, far more than critics appreciate. It is what happens in the lives of college students much more frequently than in the lives of most adults, in part because college campuses and social networks tend to be more diverse than “real world” neighborhoods and social clubs.

This emphasis on constructive engagement is why, at Union College, we have launched an initiative to create the conditions for hearing and learning from diverse perspectives. One key element is an explicit and stated goal of understanding. Another is that speakers must take unscreened, sincere questions from the audience, and they are expected to respond respectfully. And finally, speakers must have evidence and reasoned arguments to support their views, given that both form the foundation upon which knowledge and wisdom rest. This is not the place to bash those who think otherwise with literal or figurative personal attacks, to privilege heat and fury over light and insight.

With this approach, and especially in the small, collegial community that is our distinctive liberal arts college, we commit to exposing our community to a range of perspectives. Success is not measured by how different the speakers’ views are from those most prevalent on the campus, but rather by the number of people who understand, and perhaps even reconsider or change their views as a result of the experience, regardless of the direction of change. As an educational institution, that’s our goal in the classroom. We expect nothing less of the speech that occurs elsewhere on campus.

– David Harris (in Inside Higher Ed)