Making students safe for ideas

Posted: November 21, 2017 at 2:26 pm

In “The Partisan Divide,” our rector, Tom Davis, (also a Schar School professor and former Congressman) describes an ever-polarized Congress void of politicians willing to compromise and reach across the aisle. This divide is not limited to our government.

We increasingly live in ideological bubbles, surrounded by people who will not challenge our beliefs. We choose news outlets that reinforce our views, we connect via social media with like-minded people, and we even move to neighborhoods where we are less likely to encounter people who think differently from us. The fact that President Trump carried more than three-quarters of counties with a Cracker Barrel restaurant and just 22 percent of counties with a Whole Foods grocery store illustrates this quite vividly.

Amid this concerning dynamic, universities’ commitment to diversity of ideas and open dialogue appears more necessary than ever. We may well be one of the few remaining places where we are likely to confront difficult and uncomfortable ideas, where we can feel free to challenge our thinking and question our beliefs.

Yet many people don’t think we’re doing a good job at it. A recent study by Pew Research Center showed that, for the first time, a majority of people leaning Republican think universities have a negative influence on the country, compared to less than 20 percent of people leaning Democratic.

It is not even clear that people agree on the importance of ideological diversity and freedom of speech on our campuses. According to a Bucknell University poll, almost 30 percent of Democrats (compared to 15 percent of Republicans) believe that colleges should be allowed to prohibit certain kinds of speech to keep students from feeling unsafe. On the flip side, only one-third of Republicans (vs. 59 percent of Democrats) agreed that professors should be able to discuss whatever ideas they wish in their classrooms.

Our university’s values make it clear that (a) we embrace a multitude of people and ideas in everything we do, and (b) we protect the freedom of all members of our community to seek truth and express their views. Independent organizations indicate that we do a reasonably good job at this. And the fact that I receive correspondence from both ends of the political spectrum criticizing ideas expressed by a faculty member, a speaker or group on campus seems to corroborate this self-assessment.

Yet we’re not immune to pressures to conform. And while our commitment to academic freedom and diversity of thought is unquestionable, we are equally committed to building a positive and collaborative community where no one feels excluded and everyone can thrive. Delivering on our goals simultaneously is not likely to become any easier, and we need to keep working self-critically to make sure we do better.

That was the focus of a Freedom and Learning Forum we held last week, a two-hour discussion with Mason faculty and students about respectful discourse, how to move from safe spaces to brave spaces, and how to open our minds to new ideas, not shut them down. I was impressed by the frankness of the dialogue and the genuine interest shared by different members of our community in achieving these goals.

College campuses must be antidotes for the echo chambers we have chosen to inhabit. They must remain venues of openness and curiosity, of respect and dialogue, places where we can challenge our beliefs by welcoming alternative viewpoints.

As former University of California President Clark Kerr famously said, our universities should not be en­gaged in mak­ing ideas safe for stu­dents, but in mak­ing stu­dents safe for ideas.

Write to presidentstaff at scullen1@gmu.edu

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