The Intersection of Free Expression and Inclusion

By President Shirley M. Collado, November 21, 2017
I had a recent conversation with a reporter from the Chronicle of Higher Education, and though our discussion was wide-ranging, we landed for a while on a topic that is rarely out of the news, and one that I feel passionately about: free expression.

The value that we in higher education place on free expression and the value that we place on equity and inclusion intersect in some very complicated ways. It’s something that campuses around the country are grappling with—ours is no exception.

We’ve recently opened our campus to speakers invited by faculty and students, including Mark Bray, a professor at Dartmouth College whose recent book explores the history of the Antifa (anti-fascism) movement, and Larry Pratt, a Second Amendment and gun rights advocate. We’ve also seen commentary in our campus media about broader cultural issues of speech, such as the appropriateness of playing the national anthem at sporting events and, further, of players who take a knee for the anthem’s duration. I am proud that our campus community members have engaged with one another and with our visitors in productive and respectful ways. As we have clearly seen on campuses across the nation, this is not always the case.

At a meeting I attended at Boston University on October 25, I was among leaders in higher education who shared their experiences and insights around free expression and inclusion. We acknowledged the tension that exists as we promote and protect free speech while promoting and protecting diversity, equity, and inclusion on our campuses. I believe firmly that these two sets of ideals do not inherently stand in opposition to one another, and that we must resist the temptation to think of them as such. After all, at their most idealistic, both of these sets of values aim to extend to all individuals the freedom to engage as full participants in our society and its institutions. To think of these values as simply oppositional would be to oversimplify what’s at stake for our campuses and for our society.

Once we recognize that this tension is real, we must learn to successfully live in it without pivoting the importance of one set of values over the other. We must be mindful to navigate this space respectfully, to not have our efforts to purely protect free speech result in targeted and vulnerable populations feeling as if their rights are compromised.  

The question remains: How can we enter into a difficult dialogue about the challenges that face our nation while simultaneously encouraging full participation among all members of our community?

To me, the answer is not to silence voices, even voices that many would deem inappropriate or challenging. Rather, the answer lies in our ability to embrace the moments that ask us to confront and lean into discomfort. In doing so, we clear pathways that enable us to articulate and better understand our truth—and who we want to be as a community. We have great potential to make incredible progress when we collaboratively and creatively build a space where we can engage in or respond to an event or conversation that challenges us. Most importantly, constructing brave and productive spaces for difficult discourse on our campus allows us as an academic community to always seek the truth.

But to do this, we must layer the right foundation that builds trust, that enables all of us to be courageous and feel empowered. When we establish this foundation, we are better able to tackle our response to moments like Mr. Bray or Mr. Pratt’s visits by having stakeholders on all sides of the issue come up with a way we can move into those spaces together.

It is one of my goals in this academic year to put together a working group focused on free expression and full participation, a diverse representation of multi-partisan viewpoints that will collaboratively develop mechanisms so when difficult or even contentious moments arise—and they will continue to arise—we will not be taken aback. We will engage confidently with those moments, and embrace a thoughtful conversation about how we, as a campus community, will respond and engage as a collective. This work will be provocative and hard, but respectful of our differences. When we do this, we provide opportunities for our faculty, staff, and students to decide what kind of conversation they want to be a part of, and how they want to show up within that conversation.

Free expression must be extended to every individual on our campus—and respected as a critical foundation of our society and of higher education. And with the right tools and the right approach, we can ensure that the freedom to speak up and out aligns with the creation of a diverse, equitable, and inclusive campus environment that ensures full participation for all.