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University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel highlighted the importance of free speech and open discourse that respects all viewpoints in a statement to the campus community Wednesday.
“The conflict of discordant ideas and opinions — even when it makes us uncomfortable — is an essential feature of an academic community,” Schlissel said.
He also emphasized that when challenging ideas, students should treat each other with respect and equality, and that hate speech or threats diminish learning by inhibiting discussion.
Schlissel’s statement comes two weeks after a controversial letter written by Jay Ellison, dean of students at the University of Chicago, to incoming students which articulated a policy not to support teacher-issued “trigger warnings.”
Trigger warnings are statements provided before a text, performance or event that alert viewers to potentially distressing material.
Like the University of Chicago letter, Schlissel’s statement emphasized the importance of being intellectually challenged by different opinions as a key tenant of a college education. He said disagreement among diverse perspectives is often inevitable, but allows for problem solving and positive change. Schlissel did not specifically mention trigger warnings.
He has taken similar positions on the issue of campus free speech in the past, especially in response to incidents around the issue. Last April, Schlissel authored an essay which was published on the Huffington Post in response to the anti-Islamic messages written on the UM Diag, which warned against visceral aversion to conflicting opinions.
“It is pointless — perhaps hypocritical — to extoll the virtues of the marketplace of ideas if some members of our community feel excluded from it,” Schlissel wrote in April. “It is contradictory to celebrate the power of words but deny their capacity to wound and marginalize.”
Despite arguing that the removal of anti-Islam chalk messages written on the Diag was not a form of censorship, Schlissel did challenge readers to be open to all opinions, if stated respectfully. Some students said these chalkings were microaggressions against Muslim students.
Over the past few years? The University has adopted several institutional changes around concerns of micro-aggressions and triggers in the classroom and around campus.
During a Leadership Breakfast in February, Schlissel announced a new professional development program in response to findings in a report from the Provost’s Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that aim to make classrooms more inclusive spaces.
“We will be implementing professional development programs to help new faculty to be more effective teachers for all of our students.” Schlissel said. “This means providing skills to address and prevent micro-aggressions in the classroom as well as strategies for effectively calling upon diverse perspectives in the classroom to achieve our learning goals.”.
This initiative, and others like it, all come from the University led “Expect Respect” campaign, which aims to brings awareness to the impacts of hateful speech.