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The National Center for Institutional Diversity hosted a discussion titled “Campus Inclusion and Free Expression: A Conversation with Higher Education Leaders” Tuesday night at the Graduate hotel in Ann Arbor. Tabbye Chavous, University of Michigan professor and director of the National Center for Institutional Diversity, moderated a four-person panel of university administrators as they debated the challenge of making campuses welcoming and inclusive while upholding the right to free speech.

About 50 audience members, including administrators and faculty from universities across the country, attended the event, which was the third in a series of dialogues that have taken place at various universities over the past academic year. 

After panelists introduced themselves, Chavous began by asking them to comment on the clash between free speech and inclusion, and to consider how the two ideas are often pitted against one another on college campuses.

Lorelle Espinosa, American Council of Education’s assistant vice president of the Center for Policy Research and Strategy, brought up a 2018 Gallup-Knight Foundation report, which found that students value inclusion over free speech.

John DeGioia, president of Georgetown University, also responded, suggesting the study didn’t capture the nuance of the issue. Though the results made headlines, the margin was small — only 53 percent of students chose diversity and inclusion over free speech — and, according to DeGioia, placing inclusion and free speech in direct competition is inherently problematic. DeGioia said that university administrators need to understand the complexity of free speech.

“We’re in a new moment in higher education where we’ve achieved a level of diversity across our campuses that requires a different kind of leadership, a different kind of engagement that respects the sheer newness of what we’re now wrestling with,” DeGioia said.

Chavous then invited the panel to think of how the country’s political climate has exacerbated issues of self-expression in academia. She cited a recent study from the Anti-Defamation League reporting a spike in white supremacist propaganda on college campuses, and asked the panel how institutions should address such problems without alienating students or faculty.

The speakers commented on the role of administration in responding to discriminatory actions. DeGioia stated universities cannot use the protection of the First Amendment as justification for remaining silent on hateful behavior. Espinosa agreed, saying universities can implement strategies such as counterprogramming, which is the scheduling of alternative activities for students during other, potentially upsetting events on campus. She said administrations need to be proactive and anticipate speech and identity-related conflicts.

“We’ve all been in such a reactive state over these last few years,” Espinosa said. “We’re trying to really hone in on what it means to be ready, and that really does come down, in a lot of ways, to institutional policy on a whole host of levels.”

Kevin McDonald, chief diversity officer and interim vice chancellor for Inclusion, Diversity and Equity at the University of Missouri, contributed to the panel by sharing an example initiative at the University of Missouri. The university uses music to create safe spaces in which students can discuss their experiences with discrimination and racial identity. McDonald also noted students have been instrumental in creating conversation about hate speech on the University of Missouri campus.

“It’s students who say, ‘No, this is the reality of the world we live in, this is what is shaping our national and global context, and we need to be aware of that and have hard conversations,’” McDonald said.

Continuing on the subject of hate speech and propaganda, the panelists discussed how many universities emphasize the importance of valuing “diverse perspectives,” but issues arise when those “diverse perspectives” are discriminatory or even challenge certain students’ humanity.

Panelist Sanford Ungar, director of Georgetown’s Free Speech Project, brought up white supremacist Richard Spencer, whose visits to college campuses have inspired multiple protests and who only recently suspended his college tours. Ungar said though speakers like Spencer do have First Amendment rights, universities are morally obliged to condemn hate speech.

“I’m just so troubled by this notion that a certain purist interpretation would say everyone must sit and listen to Richard Spencer and engage his ideas, as if there were no line, no limit, no anything,” Ungar said. “We have a responsibility to tell him that yes, of course, you have free speech rights, but we have a right to confront you and to tell you how heinous your ideas are.”

Lastly, Chavous asked the panelists for their thoughts on social media and its role in the debate on diversity, inclusion and free speech.

Chavous said social media can be problematic because institutions can’t regulate what students post online, but students who experience discrimination over social media may still associate the negativity with their college or university.

The panelists raised some of the other issues with social media, such as the fact that it often amplifies hurtful speech. Still, the panelists agreed social media does have the potential to provide a platform for productive community dialogue.

After about an hour of panel comments, the discussion was opened to the audience. Several university administrators asked questions of the panel. Meredith Raimondo, Dean of Students at Oberlin College, asked the panel how universities should respond to microaggressions and discriminatory actions which are below the threshold of formal discrimination or hate speech, but still harm students.

DeGioia said the Georgetown University administration is currently considering ways to match its harassment policies with hate speech policies. Historically, DeGioia said, the two have not been linked, but the administration wants to discuss a protocol for responding to more nuanced instances of harassment.

Suzanne Goldberg, an administrator and law school professor from Columbia University, asked the panel what classroom initiatives have been effective in addressing diversity and inclusion on college campuses. McDonald gave an example from the University of Missouri, where he spearheaded an initiative offering faculty $1,000 stipends in exchange for their participation in a year-long professional development program centered on inclusion. According to McDonald, the administration was “floored” by faculty response.

A final question was posed by G. Christine Taylor, University of Alabama administrator, who asked the panelists what kind of actions universities can take to address discrimination on the interpersonal level. She said students have reported feeling deeply affected by small-scale aggressions that accumulate over time.

The panelists discussed potential interventions, such as bystander awareness training. McDonald raised the point that discrimination occurs inside the classroom as well as outside — according to McDonald, at other institutions, he’s seen students being told within the first three weeks of class that women and students of color don’t generally succeed in a particular course.

Several University of Michigan students from Alpha Phi Omega, a community service fraternity, attended the event. The students appreciated being able to think about speech and inclusion from an administrative standpoint. Megan Quayle, an LSA sophomore who suggested the event to APO members, says she appreciated hearing university administrators’ perspectives. LSA sophomore Emma Buis agreed, saying the discourse made her realize how important it is for administrators to take action.

“I thought it was really encouraging to see how so many educators from around the nation are interested in not only talking about issues like this, but also taking action steps,” Buis said. “A lot of times, it’s easy to write a letter, like, ‘We don’t like racists here,’ but it’s more important to actually do that institutional support.”

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