Op-Ed: How the University failed to protect diversity of viewpoints

Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - 4:31pm

Diversity. It’s a complicated word, yet a pervasive one, especially at colleges and universities around the country. At the University of Michigan, the word pops up in the Committee on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, in the Diversity Peer Educators hired by the University to work in every building, and in every classroom on campus. In practice, though, the University has failed to truly promote the concept of diversity in all instances, as was made appallingly clear to me at the debate held by the Michigan Political Union on Sept. 26.

A statement from E. Royster Harper, vice president of student affairs, says that “(it is the) right of protesters to oppose the expression of views or opinions of others, but not in such a way as to limit or prevent the speaker or performer freedom of expression,” yet this right was clearly violated that Tuesday night when protesters interrupted the debate hosted by MPU. One important and often overlooked aspect of diversity is diversity of thought, which means being inclusive of opinions different from one’s own and learning that respectful disagreement is as good if not better than unmasked fury. 

During the MPU debate on the Black Lives Matter movement, the concept of viewpoint diversity was completely disregarded by the hundreds of protesters who stormed the venue, preferring to interrupt speakers and use profanities rather than engage in civil discourse. Every MPU speaker at the debate was interrupted several times, and each time the room became so loud the speaker could not be heard over the interruption. Even so, Rick Fitzgerald, the director of public affairs for the University, told numerous media sources that “the dialogue is really important. Listening as well as talking are important for both sides on this campus,” and described the debate as a positive interaction. 

Additionally, the University looked on silently as Central Student Government, the official link between students and University administration, published a statement only a day before the debate equating it to overtly racist fliers placed on campus, referring to both as times “we are forced to confront bigotry again at Michigan.” CSG condemned MPU as racists and bigots for exercising their right to free speech in a non-hateful manner while the University not only ignored the statement, but also allowed it to be published on letterhead bearing the block ‘M,’ a symbol ubiquitous in official University announcements. The University’s response on both issues shows a callous disregard for diversity of thought and highlights the disconnect between the true meaning of diversity and the behavior of the committee meant to handle such issues.

Unfortunately, the hypocrisy does not end there. At the debate, two of the more vocal protesters were Diversity Peer Educators hired by the University to “assist in the development of a community that is safe and welcoming for residents of all identities.” One of these DPEs directed verbal attacks containing profanity specifically toward me and later interrupted the debate to insist that only Black students should be able to ask and answer questions concerning the Black Lives Matter Movement. The other DPE wrote an op-ed published in the Daily in the days preceding the debate arguing against free speech by urging MPU to cancel the debate on the grounds that only Black people should discuss BLM and that the decision to debate BLM was “blatantly racist.”

I question the judgment of the University for its complete lack of training for these individuals regarding the proper role for a representative of diversity. In their own respective ways, both of these individuals disregarded the need for differing opinions and viewpoints and attempted to shut down the voices of people of all identities except for one group. For a Diversity Peer Educator to use words like “bullshit” in a debate setting and to censor speech based on racial criteria is beyond absurd. While the DPEs have the right to free speech as much as the rest of us and one may argue that they were not acting in their official capacity when these comments were made, neither of them made any attempt at disclosure of their position, even as much as a statement explaining their position on campus and that any statements they made were personal views only, not the views of a Diversity Peer Educator.

While I think it is evident that the University has failed to respect the rights of students with opposing viewpoints, the question remains as to what the proper course for the University is moving forward. Firstly, the position of DPE needs to be reformed or eliminated. If the role of a DPE is simply to advocate for the rights of minorities, then the position’s name should be reflective of that and not use the word “diversity.” I have sent resources for training future DPEs to respect viewpoint diversity to those in charge of training Diversity Peer Educators, and I hope my suggestions will be taken seriously. 

Next, I would encourage the University to become a Heterodox University. A Heterodox University is a university that follows the suggestions endorsed by the Heterodox Academy, a collection of professors from various universities dedicated to ensuring viewpoint diversity in academia. According to their guidelines, a Heterodox University must ensure “that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It must also “implement a non-obstruction policy for protests.” If the University of Michigan adopts these policies, it will go a long way in correcting its improper behavior toward the Michigan Political Union and toward students with opposing viewpoints seeking to be heard.

Allison Hellman is an Executive Board member of the Michigan Political Union. The views expressed above represent the writer's opinion and not those of the Michigan Political Union or its Executive Board.