Diversity and Democracy

From the Editor

American higher education has been visited of late by a tempest of questions both enduring and newly germane: What is the relationship between free speech and civil discourse, and what are the benefits and limitations of these and related frameworks? When does a commitment to free speech exist in harmony or tension with a commitment to inclusive learning environments, and when do calls for civility empower or silence marginalized voices? How do historical and contemporary dynamics of power and privilege affect which voices are dominant in which contexts, and what might this mean for educational practice? What is the relationship between freedom of inquiry, freedom of expression, civil rights, and civil discourse, and what can higher education do to secure and balance these core values in the face of external and internal pressures and threats?

As Lynn Pasquerella points out in her opening essay in this issue of Diversity & Democracy, the complex issues reflected by questions like these “require the capacity to talk across differences and listen critically with heightened sensitivity and sophistication”—some of the many learning outcomes of a high-quality liberal education. It is appropriate, then, that this issue’s contributors do not offer definitive answers to all of these questions. But they do share different tools they have used to navigate unpredictable waters, and in their stories, readers may find the components to piece together the vessels they need to sail through the gale-force winds of controversy.

The journeys described in this issue include Hampshire College’s efforts to create democratic speech environments, California State University–Monterey Bay’s attempts to carve space for dialogue out of shock and despair, and the work of higher education’s governing boards to play a more robust role in addressing campus conflict. Contributors contemplate the limits of “more speech” as an antidote to hate speech; they reflect on how a sense of physical vulnerability can circumscribe intellectual risk-taking; and they espouse the value of living one’s principles and embodying one’s values, individually and collectively, in times of turmoil. These articles offer models for bringing campus communities together in support of equity and justice, for the purpose of learning across differences and for the sake of civic engagement.

Contributing authors address a series of interrelated topics—including free speech, academic freedom, civil discourse, and civil rights—and invite readers to consider these different terms, their points of connection or divergence, and their implications for liberal learning in a democratic society. The issue also calls readers to contemplate a range of related challenges: bridging gaping divides in perspectives, presumptions, and politics; finding one’s voice, but also listening for and truly hearing the voices of others; and attending to the entrenched power differentials that affect who speaks and who is heard. Finally, these articles suggest one key imperative: that we continue to struggle with these challenges, however insurmountable they seem.

Indeed, the future of liberal education—and of US democracy and leadership in a world facing extraordinary dangers and unrealized opportunities—may depend in part on higher education’s ability to continue struggling. As scholars and citizens, college and university educators must find in themselves the resilience they often celebrate in their students. The tempests raging across higher education are formidable and often damaging. But, like the eponymous squall of Shakespeare’s play, they may soon dissipate, leaving the prospect of transformation in their wake.

Through that wake lie potential routes forward—and this issue of Diversity & Democracy emphasizes the value of those voyages. Every journey, and every means of travel, will be different. But each may be guided by the principles that form higher education’s North Star: the commitment to unconstrained inquiry supported by the substance of evidence, the search for democracy’s promise of a just and equitable society, and the understanding of higher education’s role in connecting these priorities.

Postscript: This issue went to press shortly prior to August 11 and 12, 2017, when an organized group of white supremacists demonstrated in Charlottesville, Virginia. Like so many others, I was outraged at the torch-bearing marchers winding through the grounds of the University of Virginia, my alma mater; disgusted by the racist, anti-Semitic, and otherwise hateful messages these demonstrators articulated; and repelled by the intimidation and violence they sowed. I mourn the events that occurred in my adopted hometown and the lives lost as a result. When I wrote the editor’s note above, I did not imagine that the routes forward would be as difficult as they are today. AAC&U joins its members in their shared commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and in affirming the values of free speech and freedom of inquiry. We also condemn all acts of violence and the principles of hatred that white supremacy and related belief systems represent. We remain committed to advancing higher education’s critical role in creating a just and inclusive world.

Kathryn Peltier Campbell is the editor of Diversity & Democracy.


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