Freedom and Responsibility
Higher education, especially community colleges, embrace equity of opportunity. We have the privilege of welcoming students from all walks of life to our campuses each year. Once here those students enter a learning environment that purposefully exposes them to new ideas, challenges their preconceived notions and expands their perspective. This allows, and sometimes forces, them to grow both intellectually and personally. It’s why I say that we aren’t just granting degrees and credentials, we are preparing our students to be citizens of our world.
However, what we do and how we do it is under increasing scrutiny as more and more colleges and universities across the country are coming under fire for their handling of issues related to free expression and inclusiveness.
Last fall, the University of Florida was widely criticized for allowing known white supremacist Richard Spencer to speak on campus. Due to significant unrest among the student body and the public, the University had to institute additional security measures costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Florida’s Governor declared a state of emergency in order to ensure sufficient law enforcement resources were made available to the university to handle any potential problems.
Earlier in the year, Berkeley experienced riots in their city streets when a former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was invited on campus. They incurred significant security and damages costs as well. And there were several of these incidents on campuses across the U.S. last year.
During the recent Congressional hearings with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska stated, “Forty percent of Americans under age 35 tell pollsters they think the First Amendment is dangerous because you might use your freedom to say something that hurts somebody else’s feelings.” He was citing a 2015 Pew Research Center poll related to censorship of offensive statements about minorities. Other surveys have indicated that many college students believe it is sometimes acceptable to shout down speakers, even use violence to censor hateful or offensive language.
I believe this is an important moment for those of us in higher education and we should embrace the possibilities it presents.
As educators and administrators, we are role models to our students, representing not just our institutions but our entire profession. We are, probably more so than most, responsible for what we do and say and how we do and say it. It is up to us to demonstrate that free speech and the forum that higher education provides is about raising difficult and contentious questions of public concern in civil debate.
A democratic society needs colleges like ours for this forum for debate. If given the support and resources to do so, we can become the driving force that brings our nation together.