Student engagement prerequisite to free speech on campus, leaders say
- To handle controversial speaker visits to campus effectively, administrators can act preemptively via an "engagement team," that includes academic leaders, student affairs, public safety and facilities personnel who can "have a dialogue with students organizing the talk, said Andrew Martin, dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts at the University of Michigan during the recent New York Times Higher Ed Leaders Forum.
- Allowing free speech on campus means working with speech organizers, said Martin, to define the tactical limitations without disrupting students' rights. These include the location for the speech, access to the event and public safety plan that considers if an indoors or outdoors venue can be controlled more effectively.
- Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, echoed Martin's sentiments about acting proactively. She added while Brown rolled out a formal event disruption protocol, it also engages in discussions with students hosting the event early and often as well as those who might be unhappy about the speaker coming to campus. "I think that's 90% of the battle," she said.
Free speech on campus is a hot button issue for higher education administrators who recognize the costly and often time highly damaging effects of mishandling a controversial speaker on campus. While proactively defining a free speech policy and developing a safety plan are major components of preventing this impact, leaders also see that engagement with students is also a key component — with Paxson contending that engagement is the most effective free speech approach. At the end of the day, she said, the institution must preserve the right of free speech as part of academic inquiry.
"We're not aiming to eliminate protests; we actually think that protest is valid sometimes. But we are aiming for the right of the speaker to speak no matter," said Paxson. "If something goes on where the talk just really can't go on in the space where we had it, the speaker is removed safely [...] to a place where [we] can live stream their talk back into the hall, but the speech goes on. It has to."
The Brown president said one way of backing that up is to have student teams that have been trained to work with students inviting speakers to campus and help them explain their goals to the greater community. This form of engagement, she added, can sometimes yield better results than what could be perceived as an overbearing administrator presence.
But, Martin said, engagement is critical from the get-go. "We have many different groups of students who feel like their voices are not heard. This is true for many of our conservative students on campus; it is certainly true of underrepresented minority students, those who are members of religious minorities on our campus. Many of our students at times feel unsafe when they are in the presence of ideas and speakers that they're not comfortable with.”
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