The world is full of new tragedies every day—suicide bombers and machine gun attacks on several continents, refugees streaming across borders, and natural disasters from floods to ice storms to hurricanes. Yet some days recently, the front page story has dealt with complaints of racism on university campuses. From Amherst to Claremont McKenna, from Mizzou to Yale, students protest what they see as institutionalized racism and lack of inclusion.
Racism in our society is an important topic and deserves attention. College faculty and administrators who do not take complaints seriously are doing their institutions—and their students—a disservice. Universities are no different than other institutions, such as corporations, police departments, and military units. Many organizations have faced complaints of racism and sexism and other discrimination and have had to change their attitudes and policies to manage the problem. Protests are often necessary to bring about change.
And yet university campuses should be places where opposing viewpoints can live, if not in harmony, at least in juxtaposition. The word “university” is derived from the Latin “universus,” meaning “the whole.” If a university cannot at least provide a forum for all perspectivies, it does not deserve the name. The word “diversity” means “variety,” and institutions claiming to support diversity must be open to a variety of opinions.
I am not excusing racist remarks. I am not shrugging at harassment of anyone. I am not approving of faculties or workplaces that do not include minorities or women or other underrepresented groups.
But I am suggesting that universities are not places where students should feel comfortable all the time. I am suggesting that everyone—students and faculties and administrators—should be open-minded in listening to opposing viewpoints and in conversing civilly when perspectives vary. Part of obtaining a university education is a broadening of one’s outlook on the world and its problems.
It’s not just conservative politicians that can’t find a place to speak on college campuses. Stand-up comedians also feel they cannot perform on campuses, out of fear someone will complain about being offended. It seems the pendulum of “political correctness” now swings too narrowly. Any speech too far from liberal righteousness must be quashed.
Yet this attitude cannot continue in light of the broad protections granted to freedom of speech under the First Amendment, which must be preserved on public college campuses.
One of the best articles I’ve seen on this topic was written by Mary Sanchez of The Kansas City Star. On November 16, 2015, she wrote an opinion piece entitled, “By focusing their protests, KU students can be vocal and effective,” regarding student protests at the University of Kansas.
Ms. Sanchez differentiated between micro-aggressions and racism. Micro-aggressions are wearying for those who experience them often, but racism occurs when that lack of understanding becomes institutionalized to the detriment of some group. Those are the issues on which protesters should focus to be effective.
She suggested that students cull their fifteen demands into those that were most important and focus on those. She said:
“Pick a few doable, impactful items. Then study them for all their nuances and tentacles.”
She also compared the university to corporate settings, and wrote:
“’Diversity’ never works unless the top people, the decision-makers holding the purse strings get behind it. Middle managers, (as the people who will carry marching orders forward) are crucial. Middle managers will implode the best-intended policy unless they buy into it. Who is the equivalent in a college setting — the regents, second-tier administrators, the deans? Figure it out for your campus.”
In addition to businesses providing a lesson to campus protesters, the campus protests can offer a lesson for businesses as well. The University of Missouri situation came to a head when the football players refused to practice or play until certain issues were addressed.
Every organization has segments that have more influence than others. Who are the football players in your organization—the visible, influential groups that, if aligned against the institution, can damage it? Be sure you address the concerns of those groups.
Let’s use the campus protests as an opportunity for dialogue, not as an excuse to shut down communication.
Where does your organization draw the line between permitting opposing viewpoints and protecting against offensiveness?