President Steele: The End of Free Speech on Campus?

David SteeleI arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area as an immigrant in the 1960’s to a torrent of demonstrations on university campuses. Having just attended a university in the United Kingdom where civility reigned and differing opinions were expressed openly in student newspapers and debating societies, I was alarmed at the degree of violent, anti-free speech protests on U.S. campuses. Then the Vietnam War ended and campuses seemed to revert to focusing on academics rather than counter-culture. Not even the invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq in the early 2000s seemed to generate much reaction on U.S. campuses.

But then events in 2016 and 2017 seem to launch a “culture war” about free speech, racism and the value of diversity on campuses. A new college vocabulary has been created, including phrases like “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings” and “micro-aggressions.” Many academics feel that the campus culture has shifted from student-centered to student-owned. And a new student generation on smart phones and social media now has the ability to spread this angst like wildfire. A new paradigm has emerged: kill an opinion that is deemed offensive. Some of us seemed to have forgotten the constitutional right to free speech and the normal give-and-take of civilized debate.

In addition to academic freedom, I believe that two of the other important pillars of a university education are the free and civil exchange of ideas as well as the value of gender and ethnic diversity. But recent events at Evergreen State College and at Marquette University are disconcerting, especially given the large financial settlements and the involvement of the courts. At the latter institution, a tenured political science professor was silenced for stating in a blog that ‘same sex marriage should be debatable’ and was effectively fired. He is appealing his dismissal in the courts. In the case of Evergreen State College, two white professors resigned after being called racist for opposing an event organized by participants of color that asked white participants to leave campus during the activities.

The professors sued and eventually settled for a payment of $500,000. Also at Evergreen College, a black professor who made anti-white comments resigned, receiving a $240,000 settlement; and the director of the College’s First People’s Multicultural Advising Services program also resigned due to online threats.

There are catalysts for this release of racial angst and the growing concern about equal access to a higher education. A recent study by the Young Invincibles showed that the racial disparity of college graduates has increased in the last 40 years: in 1974 the population with four years of college were 14% white, 5.5% black and 5.5% Hispanic; and in 2015, they were 36.2%, 22.5% and 15.5%, respectively. While more black and Hispanic students have completed degrees during these four decades, the gap between white students and black and Hispanic students grew from 8.5% in 1974 to 13.7% for black and 20.7% for Hispanic students in 2015.

And there are some tough philosophical questions. When does “free speech” become “hate speech?” Given the polarization of our two national political parties and the ideological divide between the left and the right, how do we handle these issues on college campuses? How do we find common ground? More than anything, I believe that we need to listen to each other – especially the unheard, marginalized elements of our community – and engage in civil discourse.  After all, we are supposed to be living in a civilized society.

The good news is that there is a growing recognition of the importance of racial equity and social justice in higher education. And there is heated dialog, albeit at times violent, on what kind of society our new generation wants to build. Going back to my college days in the U.K. 50 years ago, a common phrase in the vocabulary was “social conscience.” As president of Woodbury, which has a strong sense of community, I was elated to hear this phrase used recently by one of our student leaders. And yes, one of my key duties is listening to our students.

Perhaps past is prologue after all. I look forward to the period of peace which ensued after the campus protests of 50 years ago and the right to express our cherished academic freedom without fear of violence or intimidation.