Perspectives – Students Call for More Inclusive Learning Environments on Campus
“Racism isn’t an issue confined to college campuses, but as the events of the past week at the University of Missouri have shown, the college environment can be a microcosm that highlights challenges our entire society is experiencing,” writes Richard Guarasci, president of Wagner College, in the Courier-Post. Indeed, the student protests at Missouri, which led to the resignation of the university’s chancellor, were soon followed by similar protests against campus racism at Yale, Georgetown, Ithaca, Columbia, and Claremont McKenna, among many others. While the situation at each institution and the actions of the student activists have varied, at the heart of all these protests is the students’ assertion that their campuses are no longer—or have never been—safe spaces for learning where students from all backgrounds are equal members of the community.
Some commentators have expressed support for the students, while others have asserted that many of these students have gone too far, that they have “weaponized” the concept of safe space in such a way as to shut down viewpoints that they might disagree with or find offensive. But a focus on rhetoric should not distract from the protestors’ message, says Danielle Allen. “The issues of free speech matter, too, but they are leading people in the wrong direction, away from the deepest issue [of social inequality],” Allen writes in The Washington Post. “We all have a beautiful, wonderful democratic right to be offensive. Yet offensiveness is not, in fact, innocuous.” Nor are safe space and free speech inherently in conflict, writes Christine Embra, also in the Post. “Rather than pitting ‘absolute free speech’ against ‘perfectly safe spaces,’ both outside observers and those responsible for student well-being should be having deeper conversations, employing perhaps more difficult and more useful language as well.”
In a statement affirming AAC&U’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusive excellence, AAC&U President Carol Schneider echoes the students’ calls for more inclusive learning environments, and notes that “many protestors also are asking that higher education take action in working to redress the deepening divides that now characterize our democracy.” Guarasci agrees that protests have shown that “higher education needs to play a more direct, hands-on role in addressing these huge inequalities.” In order to do so, higher education leaders around the country must engage in “a searching look at where we are now, both as a society and in our own institutions,” Schneider says. “AAC&U is strongly committed to helping our members succeed in the long-term work of educating and graduating students—from all backgrounds—who will be both prepared and inspired to work for a more just and equitable democracy in the United States and for the expansion of human dignity and opportunity around the world.”