Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth visited the Michigan Union Thursday morning to discuss controversial college campus topics, including free speech, affirmative action and political correctness. Approximately 100 administrators, faculty and graduate and doctoral students attended the event.
The lecture, “Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses,” was named after Roth’s newest book. The event was part of the National Center for Institutional Diversity Research and Scholarship Seminar Series featuring academics who focus on historical and contemporary social issues surrounding identity, representation and inequality, and how research and scholarship can address these issues.
Alford Young, sociology and African-American studies professor, introduced Roth and his new book, praising his ability to present current issues at Wesleyan in his books.
“What I find particularly important is President Roth, as he has done consistently throughout his career, writes to his audiences, not about problems that are solved, but issues that he serves in real-time,” Young said.
Roth began his talk by explaining the title of his book and lecture, defining what “safe enough” spaces were to him as a university president.
“A safe enough space at a college or university is a space in which students are going to not be subject to harassment and intimidation,” Roth said. “But not so safe that you go to class and you never contribute.”
Roth wrote his book as a defense of students who protest speakers on campus, who critique professors with differing opinions and who serve as activists on college campuses fighting for marginalized groups. He said these students are often criticized for placing too much emphasis on political correctness and social justice, but he disagrees with this characterization.
“People like to make fun of this stuff,” Roth said. “I’ve read so many books that criticize college students, especially this generation of students, and they criticize them in such a way that the picture is unrecognizable to me … I see a lot of students in my class when they come to protest my decisions or my lack of decisions. Even when they came to protest, I just didn’t recognize this caricature of the ‘snowflake’ or the ‘intolerant social justice warrior.’”
Roth also criticized professors who feel threatened by students protesting their courses or protesting university decisions, pointing out professors have a duty to work with and teach all students no matter their opinions.
“I do think when you start complaining about students as a professor, you’ve got to start planning your retirement,” Roth said. “Because you get the cards you get, you don’t get to complain about your students. You figure out how to teach them.”
He also dove into political correctness on campuses. Roth noted all presidents from the President George H.W. Bush forward gave speeches on political correctness, using the concept as a weapon.
“It’s just something you use against your enemies,” he said. “It’s weaponized. Trump brought that forward in a really dramatic way during the primary campaign. When there was a question he didn’t like, he’d say political correctness was killing our country, and this seems to work because there is a view … that what happens to colleges and universities is a kind of hothouse environment where professors can indoctrinate their students.”
In response to this view, Roth said he has yet to meet one professor aiming to indoctrinate their students in a course. At the same time, he said professors want to have the freedom and right to teach what they want in their courses.
“There is a tension there because, after all, professors should have academic freedom to teach their courses in the way they want to,” Roth said. “They certainly react to pressure from students to change courses, sometimes from pressure from administrators… but they do insist that even if someone has an intention, they have the right to teach their course a certain way.”
To end his talk, Roth emphasized higher education as a public good, encouraging faculty, educators and administrators to widen their lenses, particularly in intellectual diversity.
“If we take diversity of ideas that we cultivate on campus and increase the ability of our neighbors, and others who live in this country, to work together to solve more problems, I think we’d be doing a great service to the country,” Roth said.
Rackham student Jeffrey Grim attended the lecture as an affiliate of NCID to hear a university president’s perspective on free speech on college campuses.
“From a scholarly and practical standpoint, and I thought it’d be interesting to hear,” Grim said. “I’ve heard scholars talk about it, I’ve heard practitioners … it was helpful to hear a perspective from a college president who is intellectually interested in this, but also has to manage an institution.”
Grim said he appreciated Roth’s discussion of the impact outside forces can have on on-campus issues.
“His overall speech kind of talked about institutional context matters, how political climate and personal background matters,” Grim said. “When we’re thinking about the impact it has on people, the impact speech has on people. Another takeaway was thinking about the role of executive leaders or leaders on college campuses and promoting different types of views and perspectives and the structures that come along with that.”
Staff Reporter Sonia Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.