How should college presidents respond to controversial speakers on campus?
- A recent controversy at Sweet Briar College served as the backdrop for discussion on if and how forcefully college presidents should respond to offensive remarks made on campus, according to Inside Higher Ed.
- Sweet Briar alumna and entrepreneur Nella Gray Barkley remarked about the veracity of the "Me Too" movement during her commencement speech at the college, and cautioned graduates to be more mindful of the reality of sexism and chauvinism in work environments, and the role women might play in encouraging behavior based in these realities. The remarks were roundly dismissed by the campus community, but some criticized Sweet Briar President Meredith Woo for her perceived lukewarm response to the comments.
- While many stakeholders recognized the difficulty of Woo to having to respond to the remarks, former presidents advised that the response could have signaled clear disagreement while acknowledging the importance for all views to have the opportunity to be heard. “Presidents find themselves having to make such judgment calls all the time, and in turn they are judged by the quality of those judgments," an anonymous president told Inside Higher Ed. "But I think that the governing principle is that they need to speak for the values of their institution.”
For all of the conversation about how college leaders should invite and handle the public backlash from controversial speakers, the truth is that the two audiences most engaged and enraged by such speakers control two dramatically different areas of influence in reaction to such decisions.
When inviting controversial conservative speakers, presidents have to deal with liberal-leaning student groups and media that can create widespread awareness and reaction to these appearances. Likewise, liberal-leaning speakers or protests can generate a reaction from conservative-leaning groups, and in most places, elected officials.
Among the more successful examples of executive response to a controversial speaker was Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who spoke out against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prior to the foreign leader's invited speech at the university. His remarks preempted those of a controversial speaker, made clear his positions and made firm his belief in free speech and diverse dialog. It worked for Bollinger and Columbia because of Ahmadinejad's global perception as a dictatorial leader, but this method may not be suitable for campuses hosting American speakers with views that split listening audiences.
The costs of activism or appearances of the same could soon become too steep for students and administrators to pay. A concern is growing among high school students about admission consequences for activism, and presidents are pressed to find the middle ground between culture wars and academic freedom. And no one can be really sure, from institution to institution, about the ideal approaches for appeasing diverse and diametrically opposed groups on campus.