Free Speech

Promoting On-Campus Discourse: Recommendations

Here are some ways to build a campus culture more open to free inquiry and discourse.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

This is the last in a series of five guest posts we are publishing this week as the co-authors of a new book published by Oxford University Press titled "Unassailable Ideas: How Unwritten Rules and Social Media Shape Discourse in American Higher Education." The previous guest posts from this series can be found here, here, here, and here.

Anyone familiar with academic book publishing knows that it's not the most rapid of industries. We completed writing this book in late 2019, with only small changes made during the subsequent editing and production in 2020.

A lot has changed since 2019. But one thing that hasn't changed is the need for and value of examining the culture on campuses and considering ways in which it might be made more open to a culture of respectful discourse.

It would be naive not to also ask the question of what impact a book like this can have. It's landing at a time when Covid-19 has forced most college students out of the classroom and onto Zoom, and when American society more broadly is facing not only a pandemic, but also an economic crisis and a high level of political polarization and uncertainty.

That said, campuses—or more precisely and importantly, the communities of people who collectively give life, energy, and meaning to colleges and universities, however scattered they might now be due to Covid-19—remain as vital a part of society as ever. And, as we wrote in the preface to the book, "we are confident that our call for a culture of more open discourse in higher education will remain relevant both during the pandemic and after it has passed."

Here are the recommendations we provide in the book:

[1.] We believe that for courses on topics in which the content is related to and potentially shaped by sociopolitical considerations, faculty should be explicitly encouraged to keep in mind the value of providing their students the opportunity to engage with a wider range of political views than typically occurs today.

[2.] We urge all people with positions of authority in universities—a group that includes faculty, department chairs, deans, and university executives—to give greater thought to how their own public and private communications might inadvertently narrow the range of dialog deemed permissible. A dean who, in an official communication to faculty, expresses support for one particular side of a contentious current social or political issue that admits multiple reasonable perspectives in effect creates a social penalty for those who might want to voice support for a different view. At the very least, such expressions should be accompanied by a statement recognizing that others might reasonably hold a different view.

[3.] We explicitly oppose mandating any form of viewpoint diversity. We support an approach that encourages, but does not require, members of a campus community to engage with a broader set of views.

[4.] We encourage fostering an increased recognition of intellectual humility as integral to the promotion of viewpoint diversity, and more generally, to productive dialog. Without humility, the incentive to value other viewpoints vanishes.

[5.] We believe that university administrators and others in positions of power on campus should not let their decisions be driven by fear of social media mobs.

[6.] Students, faculty, and administrators alike should make it regular practice to personalize connections with people with whom they disagree.

[7.] We believe that members of campus communities should be encouraged to be more willing to accept a greater degree of discomfort in dialog than is currently the norm, opening the door to conversations that may at times be difficult, but that would in the long run enhance mutual understanding.

[8.] We recommend that universities revise their formal definitions of "diversity" to include viewpoint diversity—a step that would complement as opposed to compete with efforts to increase other types of diversity.

NEXT: How Has George Mason University's Law School Done Since the Scalia Renaming Gift?

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  1. [3.] We explicitly oppose mandating any form of viewpoint diversity. We support an approach that encourages, but does not require, members of a campus community to engage with a broader set of views.

    Agreed. However, the slightest viewpoint discrimination should result in a presumptive, and immediate rescinding of all non-profit privileges, all grants, all subsidies. Also, start charging real estate taxes on the spot. These America Hating Commies should not be supported by government.

    1. Your request would require rescinding the nonprofit status of many evangelical private universities.

      1. The non-profit status is to support education. That requires coverage of all sides of a subject. Covering only one side is called indoctrination, and is not the purpose of this government privilege. If they claim an educational purpose for their privilege, let them present the atheist side of their education.

  2. [6.] Students, faculty, and administrators alike should make it regular practice to personalize connections with people with whom they disagree.

    This would go a long way toward cooling overheated political passions.

    1. So would avoiding calling candidates you oppose by insulting nicknames.

      1. Which you have never done.

        1. I may have, but don’t remember doing so, certainly not as consistently as some do.

          Maybe you could point me to some comments where I am guilty.

        2. In all honesty, I don’t think I have. Part of engaging in good faith discussion about political issues is keeping the focus on policy or character. Name-calling is a distraction at best, and mean-spirited otherwise. At that point, someone is either not trying to “cool […] overheated political passions” or they’re really bad at having discussions that do so.

          But sure, tu quoque away.

      2. bernard11…I believe the relevant term is, fight fire with fire.

        Yeah I know, it sucks. The world would be a better place without fighting fire with fire. That is the reality of politics today.

    2. Let’s rephrase that.

      [6.] Everybody should be nice to each other.

      About as useful a recommendation as a gender identity studies degree — fulfills the requirement of making a recommendation, but wholly devoid of substance.

      1. No, I see it sort of like what an allergist does to help people through allergies: desensitization. That is the analogy I would make.

      2. Something like the Golden Rule. Damn those old people and their common sense ways for getting along. Next it will turn out that ‘stick and stones’ was a reasonable way to deal with insults, ‘colorblind’ does not mean blind to the person’s ethnicity, and that there are differences between men and women.

        1. The problem with the “Golden Rule” is that people are always outraged and shocked when the “others” seek to “do unto” you as you have “done unto” them.

          Or to put it another way… “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”.

          There’s a reason modern justice systems moved away from retribution as a model.

    3. Why would I want to “personalize connections” with people who openly argue that the government should dissolve my personal connection with my husband?

      Further, how is such an expectation that I “personalize connections” with people who wish me harm not an attempt to inflict “social penalties” on me for a minority?

      Alternatively…

      Why would I want to “personalize connections” with people who think not wearing a mask in a global pandemic is a valid partisan point? If they’re close enough to form a personal connection with then I’m backing up.

      Alternatively…

      If you’re not willing to hug a Nazi, you’re the real terrorist.

      I can be polite with people who wish me harm. Asking me to be friendly is too much.

      1. Because if you did, you’d realize that everything you said wasn’t true and is instead just the noise your own personal bubble tells you to fluff your ego that your one of the “good” people.

        1. … I’m a gay non-libertarian on the Reason forums, and you think the problem is my “personal bubble”?

          Nah dude, the problem is that I listen to what people say when they talk about how they want to treat gay people. Y’all have spent far more years not being shy about your odious views then you’ve spent being shy about them.

          1. No, the problem is that you listened to a few bigots that said hateful things and then projected that hateful attitude onto everyone who disagrees with you.

      2. The problem is making political positions into personal attacks. It doesn’t work intellectually because anything can be taken as a personal attack. “You want to take away my tax credit! I need that money!” “You want to make my SUV illegal. That car protects my children!”

        Previous generations had this right. Nobody said, for instance, that Black people had to have friendships with Klansmen or something similar. BUT the ordinary bounds of political debate weren’t like this. Everyone understood that there were important political issues that intelligent people had diverging opinions on, and it didn’t determine your character that you had different beliefs.

        Indeed, one thing you discover in life is that sometimes you meet people who are political opponents but who are more ethical and have more personal character than some folks who agree with you. They can make very good friends.

        1. Indeed, one thing you discover in life is that sometimes you meet people who are political opponents but who are more ethical and have more personal character than some folks who agree with you.

          On some topics, sure.

          Those aren’t the topics that are fueling the increasing partisan gap, and it’s pretty silly to pretend it is.

      3. Actually EscherEnigma, I would say that the law requires toleration. No more, and no less than that.

        If someone wishes you actual harm, there is no duty to be polite, or friendly. Specifically, I am thinking of Devarim 22:26 when I say you have no duty to be polite or friendly.

        1. Why the sudden pivot from Redstone and Villasenor’s recommendation –which you just endorsed– to “the law”?

  3. The immediate cause is useless hiring requirements for degrees, leading to useless degrees, leading to useless study, leading to restless students, teachers, and staff. It all came to a head this year because of the lockdowns throwing so many people out of work and classes and into boredom, but the root cause is too-powerful government minding everybody’s business to the point that people get more down by siccing government on other people before other people sic government on them.

  4. “That said, campuses. . . remain as vital a part of society as ever.”

    The ignorati disagree with you.

    1. “The ignorati disagree with you.”

      Nah. People disagree with precisely how vital to society “campuses…” are. Not many people think that STEM degrees are worthless.

      1. And, how vital to society certain things like forced diversity (which never includes diversity of thought) on campus on.

      2. STEM? No, certainly not worthless. But far less applicable to most of the political and social problems besetting the nation than would be history degrees, philosophy degrees, or even political science degrees.

      3. Escner, STEM? No, certainly not worthless. But far less helpful for most of the political and social problems besetting the nation than would be history degrees, philosophy degrees, or even political science degrees.

        1. Really Stephan?
          What good paying job do you get with a philosophy degree without the law degree that follows?

          1. Don Nico, you didn’t notice, but the yardstick I applied was pertinence to the nation’s problems, not pay grades currently on offer. I hoped to suggest that maybe infatuation with STEM education as a market phenomenon was overrated. Maybe the market for humanities education has been unreasonably discounted.

            1. Even by your yardstick, an engineering degree is more valuable than a polisci degree.

          2. Philosophy majors can get a lot of decent-paying jobs with only their BA. Marketing, data analysis, consulting, journalism, software engineering, project management – an average salary of $69,000 is not bad! https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Degree=Bachelor_of_Arts_(BA)%2C_Philosophy/Salary

            For reference, that’s pretty close to the average salary for a Biology major ($70K) and a Business Admin major ($69K). In my experience, the good paying jobs for humanities majors, business majors, and science majors (in undergrad) are all pretty close together, and it’s only with some kinds of engineering and computing that the average / median shoot way up.

      4. “Not many people think that STEM degrees are worthless.”

        Technology and Engineering degrees are certainly not worthless.

        Science and Mathematics degrees have to be looked at on a case by case basis, and yes some of them are worthless unless you are planning a career in academia.

  5. The Behemoth must be defunded and alternative real educational pathways for young adults should be promoted.

    1. Yes. Tax the endowments. Roll back tuition. Enforce yearly tuition caps.

      1. Corporations with big piles are money are bad and we need to tax them. But liberals are fine with big universities hoarding money. I say we tax the shit out of universities. They should have to pay the honest taxpayer back for years fleecing the public treasury.

  6. The mountain has labored and brought forth a mouse.

  7. A big nothing burger until you get to No. 8, which I take it has been the entire point of this series. They want affirmative action for some set of notionally excluded views, without naming the set. My guess, it’s movement conservatism, but who really knows?

    1. Stephen,
      The biggest problem the the focus is always on the D of DIE, with little thought given to true Equity.
      Treating ALL people fairly would go a long way to defusing most of this tempest in the college teapot.

      1. Treating ALL people fairly…

        Treat conservatives fairly? Doesn’t that go against liberals’ religion? With luck, they’ll be “tolerant” and “open-minded” enough to recognize conservatives as people.

  8. To be clear…

    There are people who, in America today, support sodomy laws.
    There are also people who, in America today, are gay.

    How do you make both of them feel that their range of dialogue isn’t “narrowed”, not suffer “social penalties”, and feel that their position is a “reasonable one to hold”?

    I mean, if you make the debate over sodomy ones part of a reasonable “range of dialogue” for the asshole, then you’ve narrowed the gay person’s dialgoue to “defend my right to not be a criminal”. It’s pretty hard to argue about hospital visitation rights when you have to talk about prisoner visitation rights.

    “Social penalties”? Sorry, but it’s well-known that if you invite in bigots to your social groups, that you push out the people they’re bigoted against. So again, if you make sure the bigot has no “social penalties” for their regressive and contemptible views, then you’re putting some pretty big “social penalties” on the person that doesn’t want to defend their right to exist constantly.

    “Reasonable one to hold”? If support of sodomy laws is treated as a “reasonable view to hold” then again, you have narrowed the dialgoue and inflicted social penalties on the gay person.

    And you can swap out sodomy laws/gay people for any other bigotted viewpoint towards marginalized groups, and this all applies.

    So as always, you’ve landed yourself in the paradox of tolerance.

    Or are you pretending that many such “viewpoint diversity” really does come down to “I don’t think people like you should exist”?

    1. Was Ruth Bader Ginsburg justified in befriending Justice Scalia?

  9. Also, if this list of recommendations delivers a fair summary of the topics developed in the authors’ book, how the hell did they get it published by Oxford University Press? Maybe the book itself has more in it than they wanted to show to the VC audience?

    1. The sex scenes were too explicit for this site.

    2. Buy the book and write a review for us.

  10. The so-called “paradox of tolerance” is the refuge of a small mind. It presumes that the existence of two opposing viewpoints implies their moral equivalence, and prioritizes safe spaces over free expression.

    The logical extension of the “paradox of tolerance” is the anti-science question-begging of the grievance studies academic left, where a bigot is presumed based on identity rather than evidence, and silenced before anyone’s feelings get hurt. I this bizarro world, white silence is violence and actual violence is totally OK.

    We must fight the woke army, as any rational person would fight an army hell-bent on burning down our liberal society. Open, robust discourse really riles them up, and when they start swinging bike-locks at me, I for one know what to do.

    1. If you think I meant to imply a “moral equivalence” between people who want to exist, and people who think those people shouldn’t exist, then you’re an idiot.

      Which your follow-up paragraphs confirmed.

      1. Whether you meant to or not, you did when you invoked the “paradox of intolerance” which is only a paradox to those incapable of holding two competing ideas in their minds, while at the same time evaluating the merits of each one.

        But thanks for just calling me a name and proving my point.

  11. Today’s de rigueur college brochure:

    Our goal is to DIE:

    Our UNIversity values DIversity (by race and ethnicity, not thought, so don’t worry, we’ll be SJW compliant.)

    We used to be an exclusive school, but now we’re Inclusive (same minority scholarships, as before, along with lots more affluent children of minority doctors and lawyers who can afford tuition and who want their children degreed from an exclusive school.)*

    We believe in Equity (both in rigorously rigged equal outcomes and that which allows parents to mortgage their homes to send their children here. Always let us know when you’ve been offended and whether your loans are still solid.
    ——
    * I’ve always supported Inclusion, to a rational extent (perhaps legacies of rich or influential families and middle-class academically accelerated students are overrepresented and minorities underrepresented in admissions, yet we shouldn’t let go of academically merit-based admissions altogether for most.)

    But, the other two are pandering “fixes” that would only encourage the current “social justice” movement to keep moving the goalposts until they’re out of the stadium.

  12. [9.] We invite faculty and administrators to join the Enlightenment.

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