President's Column: Free speech and inclusivity


Those of us who have devoted our lives to educating college students cringe when people refer to the rest of society as “the real world.” For many students, “the best years of their lives” require them to work one or more jobs, incur debt and financial worry, and juggle academic demands with busy schedules of service and other commitments. Adult students, now a majority, are often raising families.

Today’s campus is far from a cocoon removed from the real world. A residential university campus is (and should be) a microcosm of our society. This is perhaps most apparent with the current tensions throughout the country between advocates for free speech and inclusivity. From John Henry Newman’s “Idea of the University” to present-day pundits, all agree that the university should be a place where ideas of all kinds are advocated, scrutinized and debated civilly within a collegial community open to divergent views and respectful toward all. Easier said than done! And never more urgently needed.

Alvernia and other Catholic universities have a special opportunity to be laboratories dedicated to the twin ideals of free expression and inclusive communities at a time when both are under attack. Sadly, on campuses from New England to California, 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. Students and faculty have debated the merits of “trigger warnings,” which alert students that a provocative, potentially troubling issue will be covered in class. 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 students of diverse backgrounds be 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 subjected to bigotry or disrespect because of one’s identity is quite another matter. Feeling threatened or afraid goes far beyond mere discomfort.

Having your race or 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, I have initiated conversations with faculty, staff and students about the kind of community we seek to be. These stimulating conversations are ongoing, but some themes have emerged. Colleagues envision Alvernia as a place where students develop skills of critical and ethical thinking by considering issues from multiple perspectives. Unlike in our national politics, differences and 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.

We have a model for this locally in the Common Heart, an interfaith initiative sponsored by Alvernia and whose founders were recognized this year 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 a striking example of how free speech and inclusivity ought both to be celebrated.

No surprise. Our Bernardine Franciscan Sisters and modern-day patron, Pope Francis, along with the Franciscan ideal of “knowledge joined with love,” are 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, as we aspire to be a “Distinctive Franciscan University,” Alvernia can be an inspirational model for the (all too) “real world”!

Peace and all good,

Thomas F. Flynn