OpEd: Free speech & inclusivity at colleges and beyond

March 2017

It’s hard not to wince when college campuses are described as isolated from “the real world.” Students of all ages work one or more jobs, incur debt and financial worry, juggle academic demands with busy schedules of service and other activities, and often support (or raise) their families.

Following centuries when access to higher education was considerably restricted, universities now educate students of all backgrounds. Women are in the majority, and many schools have reached out to first-generation and other traditionally underrepresented students.

Today’s residential university, rather than an isolated cocoon, is a microcosm of our society. This is perhaps most apparent with the current tensions between advocates for free speech and inclusivity. From John Henry Newman’s timeless “Idea of the University” to present-day pundits, the university has been envisioned as a place where ideas are advocated, scrutinized, debated civilly within a collegial community open to divergent views and respectful toward all. Easier said than done! And never more urgently needed.

Private, values-based universities have a special opportunity to be laboratories dedicated to the twin ideals of free expression and inclusive community at a time when both are under attack. From New England to California, campus speakers have been shouted down. Graduation honorees have been disinvited after being assailed from the left or the right. Students have demanded the removal of what they deem to be offensive slogans displayed on posters or on social media. Many not only are disinterested in genuine dialogue, but also refuse to consider free expression as an important right.

Yet even passionate defenders of free speech concede that the situation is hardly simple. Some speech IS problematic, often denigrating, and even hostile, to some who acutely feel their minority status. An inclusive campus requires not merely that diverse students are admitted for study but also that they can flourish and be both supported and challenged. Being required to reflect on a disturbing text or consider an ethical position at odds with one’s beliefs is part of the critical inquiry at the heart of a university education. Today’s students need to get comfortable with being made uncomfortable intellectually.

But being disrespected because of one’s identity is another matter. Feeling threatened or afraid goes far beyond mere discomfort. Having your race, religion or sexual orientation disparaged is far different from having your opinions challenged. Faculty and administrators must help students understand this distinction. And equally important to what we say is how we say it! Listening open-mindedly and speaking respectfully, especially to those from different backgrounds or with whom we disagree, are preconditions for living harmoniously in a residential hall . . . or in a democracy.

Recently, as our nation has become increasingly polarized — with disturbingly frequent incidents of public bigotry — Alvernia’s faculty, staff, and students have been reflecting anew on the kind of community we seek to be. Faculty affirm that students will develop skills of critical and ethical thinking by considering issues from multiple perspectives. Disagreements should be engaged directly at a university, yet civilly and charitably. And all should recognize that such dialogue must never become personal — never degenerate into attacks on an individual or a group.

Locally, we have a model for this in Common Heart, an interfaith initiative sponsored by Alvernia and whose founders were recently recognized with the university’s Franciscan Award. Elsayed Elmarzouky, Rabbi Brian Michelson, and Fr. Phil Rogers offer empathetic insight into the shared and distinct perspectives of their three faiths. The programs provide superb education and demonstrate how free speech and inclusivity ought simultaneously to be celebrated.

My own university is fortunate to have our modern day patron, Pope Francis, and the Franciscan ideal of “knowledge joined with love” as our touchstones. The pursuit and expression of “knowledge” must be undertaken with what we honor as our core values: contemplation, humility, a spirit of collegiality, and a commitment to peacemaking and service. In this way, our universities, despite challenges and flaws, will be at their best inspirational models for the (all-too) “real world!”

Thomas F. Flynn


Published:

Reading Eagle, April 1, 2017

Morning Call, April 11, 2017

Thomas F. Flynn 
Thomas F. Flynn, Ph.D.
President of Alvernia University




1.888.alvernia
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