When Core Values Collide: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech

When considering the current rancorous state of public discourse about diversity, inclusion, and free speech, I want to begin on two hopeful notes.

First, Americans celebrate diversity more fervently than their peers in other countries. In 2016, the Pew Research Center asked people in a dozen developed nations whether growing diversity made their countries better places to live. Fifty-eight percent of Americans said yes—a result more than 20 percentage points higher than the most positive response in any European nation. In the same study, self-identified conservatives in America were vastly more positive about diversity than were self-identified liberals in Europe.1 Conflict and controversy sell newspapers; conflict and controversy generate clicks. But we should not lose sight of the consensus that binds us.

Second, we’ve gotten through divisive times in our national history before. Many contemporary observers bemoan the state of public discourse, including discourse on our campuses, as consisting of little more than shouting matches and personal attacks. But our society has survived previous periods when some were quick to substitute vilification for reasoning, or name-calling for debate. In 1972, in an essay he titled “The Diatribe: Last Resort for Protest,” the rhetorician Theodore Windt wrote about the tendency to shout for the sake of shouting, to shock for the sake of shocking. People who engaged in such diatribes, he wrote, were driven by a sense of hopelessness: the conviction that if they advanced reasoned arguments, their opponents wouldn’t listen. Windt argued that this hopelessness became a self-fulfilling, self-defeating prophecy when the other side responded in kind, so that instead of political debate, there was only “a reciprocated diatribe.”2 As it happens, Windt was writing about the anti-war protests of the Yippies, many of whom ended up as today’s university administrators.

I hope these two points suggest reasons for optimism when grappling with one of the most difficult, complex, and contentious issues that we face in academic life: How may we argue with one another about issues that are perceived as divisive and troubling?

Two core values

Let us consider how faculty and administrators may respond to controversy, and how we can best manage the problems that often surround a controversy—problems of legal rights and responsibilities, safety and security on campus, allocation of budget resources, and—not least—the emotional lives of our students. I also want to touch on the most intractable problem of all: how we may proceed when people do not want to argue, but instead are determined to provoke.

Every faculty member in this country, and certainly every administrator, will confront these issues sooner or later; and for faculty and administrators of color, the questions are all the more pressing. Our experience has given us an especially useful perspective that may be clarifying for everyone in the field. That perspective comes from our deep understanding that the controversies that so preoccupy us today are about two core values, shared by the academy and by democratic society, that have recently come into conflict. On the one hand is freedom of expression, the foundation of all academic life. Free speech is what enables our students to pursue knowledge—to learn and to grow—by discussing subjects of all kinds, including the most troubling. It is the heart of every college and university, and the lifeblood of democratic self-governance. On the other hand is diversity and inclusion, which many of our institutions have evolved to embrace in our core mission and value statements.

While substantial pockets of resistance remain, for the great majority of Americans, it has become self-evident that our society cannot exclude any group of citizens and still consider itself a democracy. We must be inclusive. And for the great majority of people in our colleges and universities, it is also self-evident that an academic community that is not diverse will inevitably be superficial in its ideas, and that a college or university that fails to include certain groups will also shut out a world of thoughts and experiences. But what happens when freedom of expression on the one hand and diversity and inclusion on the other come into conflict?

As faculty and administrators of color know well, the resulting clash is particularly powerful and disturbing. A thought experiment illustrates the point: Imagine a clash between free speech and a different core value. What if a speaker came to campus and aroused animosity by campaigning against the theory of evolution, or the certainty that human activity is causing climate change? This, too, would represent a conflict of values, between freedom of expression and adherence to evidence-based reasoning. But it would not hit the raw nerve that is touched when the matter is one of identity—particularly those identities that are deeply embedded and not chosen, such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender. It’s one thing for a speaker to belittle or dismiss someone’s chosen position about climate change or economic policy. It’s something else entirely for a speaker to belittle or dismiss someone’s identity. In the latter case, exclusion is at the forefront, and the conflict gets personal.

Pieces of chalk

Let me offer an example from my own experience as provost and chief academic officer at Augustana College. During the long presidential campaign of 2016, students, faculty, and staff awoke one morning to find that the entire campus had been covered with political slogans: Build the Wall. Feminism Is Cancer. Hillary for Prison. And, of course, Trump 2016. These messages were all around, on every sidewalk, scratched there with pieces of chalk.

If you’re like me, you might remember spending many happy hours as a child drawing on the sidewalk with chalk. The chalk gave us an outlet for our imaginations, and the means to play games such as hopscotch and tic-tac-toe. But this was a completely different kind of game. Who would have thought that an innocent piece of chalk, a child’s most basic toy, could become a tool to provoke, to attack, and to hurt? As we later discovered, there was irony in the students’ decision to chalk at night. Some students said they had chosen to express themselves under the cover of darkness because they were afraid they would be ridiculed or marginalized for voicing support for their candidate in broad daylight. Knowingly or inadvertently, we had shut down conversation on topics on which we disagreed.

Nevertheless, the fact remained that many students in our community felt threatened when they found themselves surrounded by these slogans written in the middle of the night. By their omnipresence, the chalkings caused genuine anguish. The students who felt affected held protest meetings and demanded an immediate response from the administration. They wanted the college’s leaders to condemn the sidewalk messages and take action against whoever was responsible.

Suddenly, Augustana College was embroiled in a dilemma that other colleges and universities across the country were already facing. Some people would have said it was a dilemma about whether there should be limits to free expression on campus. But some of us saw it otherwise: as a dilemma about the limits on free expression when speech comes into conflict with the right of students to feel that they belong at our institutions.

A sense of belonging

A sense of belonging may be the key to diversity and inclusion. Over the past quarter century, higher education has looked closely at the fortunes of students of color on our campuses, with consideration of their retention and graduation rates as well as their experiences and participation in academic enrichment opportunities. We have seen that students of color have different experiences at our schools than white students, which affect outcomes—and we have learned that we need to be honest about the specificity of those experiences. As a result, we have started to have serious conversations about what it would take for students of color to have a similar sense of belonging on campus as our white students. We still have a long way to go. But we have recognized the issue, and we are working to close the gap.

What that means, in immediate, personal terms, is that when students return to our campuses after being away, we say to them, “Welcome home.” And it is entirely legitimate for students of color to say, “If this is truly my home, then why can’t I feel safe and respected within its walls? How is it tolerable that I should be assaulted by hateful messages within my own home?”

In such situations, there are people who are quick to complain that students have become too soft. Too spoiled. Coddled. Special snowflakes. But when the chalkings appeared at Augustana College, I could see that some of our students were truly hurt and even in shock, and I could not discount their feelings. I was disturbed myself. The words that had been written throughout campus stung me too. But administrators must act on principle, and accept the emotional toll even as we explain our decisions to different groups and leave no one feeling completely satisfied.

The fact was, our administration could not satisfy student demands for legal action. As difficult as it was, we had to explain that there are different kinds of threats, and while the aggressive, hurtful words scrawled around the campus indeed felt threatening, they did not constitute what the law considers to be a material threat—one suggesting imminent physical danger. Unsurprisingly, the students didn’t want to hear this legalistic response. They wanted to know what we were going to do to address their concerns.

A multifaceted response

At Augustana College, we offered a multifaceted response.

First, we asserted the right of the college to enforce our student code of conduct. Our institutions all have the authority to establish rules of behavior. While public colleges and universities have far less leeway than private schools, in all cases students elect to go to a college. And by choosing to do so, they agree to abide by the standards of their new community. So we applied our rules against plastering flyers over every surface on campus to the political sloganeering—what some claimed was hate speech—that was chalked onto the sidewalk. We cannot ban people from chalking an endorsement of one political candidate or a nasty message about another. But we can ban them from bombarding us with these messages wherever we go. So we established a place where chalking would be allowed, just as we have established places to hang flyers and posters.

In our second action, I made a misstep. I can laugh about it in retrospect, but it was not funny at the time. When we made our code-of-conduct decision, I sent an email to the whole college, explaining how the chalking rules would work. I should have written that we were going to establish a free-chalking zone on campus; but in my haste, I referred instead to “a free-speech zone.” Although I sent a second email to correct the first, the damage had been done. People who wanted to score political points were already publishing blog posts with a screenshot of my original email, complaining that free speech had been fenced in at Augustana College. While I was rushing to respond as soon as possible to the concerns of distraught students, I should nevertheless have used better judgment, and I’ve learned from that mistake to read an email twice before sending it.

The third thing we did, when another opportunity arose, was to engage our College Republicans with the help of their faculty advisor. The College Republicans wanted to invite the former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus in fall 2016. Fortunately, all such invitations must be reviewed by the administration, and they must follow the code of conduct and the rules outlined in the student handbook. We fretted and debated over this proposed invitation and ultimately asked the students’ leaders to meet with administrators for a conversation. We told them that the college would not prevent Yiannopoulos from speaking. But we wanted to know: What teaching purpose did they believe would be served by bringing him to Augustana College? What would he contribute to academic discourse on the campus? And how likely would it be that he would persuade other students to adopt their point of view? If they truly believed in the positions they were promoting, we asked, why bring in a speaker who is just a flamethrower? Why not invite someone who is capable of winning hearts and minds through open discussion? And the College Republicans said we were right. By engaging them in conversation before they brought in an inflammatory speaker, our community managed to avoid what could have been a problem.

Living our principles

What we did at Augustana College was not unique, and I realize we were just plain lucky that things turned out so well. However, our approach to resolving conflict between free speech and inclusiveness can be found on other campuses.

Drake University, for example, created a statement of principles that mentions certain reasonable restrictions—the things that students should not do—but mostly focuses on the positive: what students, faculty, and staff should do regarding free speech, academic freedom, and civil discourse. This statement proved its worth when a nationally known hate group announced that it intended to visit Drake to protest a symposium on same-sex marriage. Drake’s president at the time, David Maxwell, sent a message to the campus reminding everyone that the university is a place where people should be able to debate critical issues without fear of reprisal. But in the spirit of the statement of principles, he also asked the Drake community to show that it could act with dignity and restraint in the face of provocation. The result? Members of the campus community exercised their right to assemble and speak by holding a counterprotest that was peaceful, positive in spirit, and very effective in showing the hate group that there was no profit for them in being around. The group exercised its own right to free speech, then left quickly and without incident.3

How can an institution write an effective statement of principles? I’ll suggest four components as a start:

  1. Keep it short and simple, so it can be understood and remembered.
  2. Keep it inclusive, so that people realize the campus community is not divided into “us” and “them,” but instead into “us” and “others of us.”
  3. Keep it up to date, so that it encompasses changing situations.
  4. Above all, keep it in practice. Model those principles. Principles need to be lived every day, not applied only in emergencies.

The advantage of this approach is that it preserves free speech, while making clear that not all forms of behavior can be excused on the grounds of the First Amendment. Indeed, there are constitutional limits to campus speech codes. If codes of conduct are drafted appropriately—if they take care to maintain a diversity of opinions, just as we respect the need for a diversity of people—then they can help campuses create safe spaces for historically marginalized groups without infringing on the right to free expression.

The high stakes

Our students are constantly learning, and we can’t expect them to know on their first try how to speak and interact in constructive ways that honor the principles of community. This is another reason why a statement of principles can be valuable—and why inclusive safe spaces, trigger warnings, and rules against microaggressions may be appropriate educational tools. They can help preserve an environment that allows for greater learning, as long as we also prepare our students to face uncomfortable, disturbing, or even hateful environments once they leave our campuses. Instances of debate, disagreement, and controversy are often when the best learning happens. We do well to remember that our educational missions support an ongoing process intended to result in graduates more capable of navigating the world than when they first entered our campuses.

Of course, there is an argument to be made that our students need to encounter a little rough-and-tumble discourse on campus. They need to explore and prepare for a world that often isn’t nice. One might argue that safe spaces, trigger warnings, and rules against microaggressions delay this process. On the other hand, these accommodations can help establish the sense of belonging—the atmosphere of care supporting students’ confidence and self-worth—that enables students to explore and grow and be prepared for the “real world.”

One thing is certain, however. We must be creative and sensitive in resolving the clash between free speech and inclusiveness. If we fail in achieving a resolution, the very basis of academic life may be undermined. A recent survey by the Brookings Institution found that fewer than half of America’s college students understand that hate speech is constitutionally protected. A majority erroneously believe that schools are required by the First Amendment to present an opposing viewpoint to a controversial speaker. And an alarmingly high number feel it is appropriate to shout down speakers whom they oppose, or even use violence to silence them.4

We ought to be worried by these statistics. Think about which groups, historically, have most often been shouted down or told by authorities that their opinions have strayed beyond acceptable boundaries. Those of us who belong to these groups, including faculty and administrators of color, should be the very first people to defend freedom of expression against encroachment. But we must also be resolute in upholding the value of inclusiveness—because, as we have seen, attacks on inclusiveness corrode our students’ confidence in free expression. They are, in fact, among the reasons why so many young people today not only fail to support one another’s right to free speech, but fail to understand our bedrock First Amendment rights.

It takes patience, calm, and perseverance to resolve conflicts between free speech and inclusiveness. Very often, the day after you’ve done it, you have to get up and do it all over again. And balancing these principles will take its toll, particularly on faculty and administrators of color and others from historically marginalized groups. But no one ever told us our work in higher education was going to be easy.

If we get out ahead of potential problems and take the initiative in holding frank, purpose-driven conversations with all who live and work on our campuses—and, above all, if we trust our communities enough to hold them to their own high standards of conduct—then, day by day, we will succeed in helping all our students feel that they belong, and making all our students passionate advocates and practitioners of free speech. We can do this—and we must, for the generation that takes over from us.

Notes

1. Bruce Drake and Jacob Poushter, “In Views of Diversity, Many Europeans Are Less Positive Than Americans,” FactTank: News in the Numbers, July 12, 2016, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/ 07/12/in-views-of-diversity-many-europeans-are-less-positive-than-americans/.

2. Theodore Otto Windt, “The Diatribe: Last Resort for Protest,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 58, no. 1 (February 1972): 1–14.

3. David Maxwell described these events in “This Is Who We Say We Are,” Diversity & Democracy 20, no. 2/3 (Spring/Summer 2017), https://www.aacu.org/diversitydemocracy/2017/spring-summer/maxwell.

4. John Villasenor, “Views among College Students regarding the First Amendment: Results from a New Survey,” FixGov (blog), September 18, 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2017/09/18/views-among-college-stu....

To respond to this article, email liberaled@aacu.org with the author’s name on the subject line.


PAREENA G. LAWRENCE is president of Hollins University. This article was adapted from the author’s address to the Networking Luncheon for Faculty and Administrators of Color at the 2018 annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities; an abbreviated version appeared in Inside Higher Ed on March 19, 2018.

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