Public conversation often pits free speech against diversity and inclusion, as if these values inevitably conflict. Davidson College President Carol Quillen told a Washington audience Friday that cultivating a broadly diverse community actually strengthens free inquiry by expanding the range of questions that get asked.
Colleges and universities aim to encourage free speech and inquiry and to create an inclusive environment. The two don't conflict but have been juxtaposed in ways that do, partly because disparaging labels have been substituted for a legitimate exchange of ideas, Quillen told a panel on "Free Speech on Campus" at the American Historical Association's annual meeting in the nation's capital Friday.
"Can we make a distinction between an idea or an argument and an epithet? If it's not refutable, it's not an argument," Quillen said, drawing audience laughter with a reference to Dan Aykroyd's slur toward Jane Curtin during Saturday Night Live's "Point/Counterpoint" skit in the '70s. "It's name-calling."
Quillen joined a panel of higher education leaders invited to help provide clarity and direction at a time that campuses are under fire, criticized as intellectually narrow places that dampen free speech and inquiry. Critics serve up widely publicized examples of primarily conservative speakers harassed by crowds. The panel's discussion ranged from the dangers and benefits of social media, to the political leanings of faculty members to whom should be invited to speak on campus and what should be done if a speaker draws protests.
Sanford Ungar, the director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, moderated the panel that also included Carla Hesse, dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of California at Berkeley, Northwestern University Provost Jonathan Scott Holloway and Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth.
"Academic freedom is largely about inquiry and the freedom to pursue even wildly unpopular lines of research in the interest of arriving at new insights," Quillen said. "Many of the most important areas of research today were at one time wildly unpopular, frowned upon and dismissed as outrageous."
Free inquiry benefits from inclusion and diversity, she said, because a greater difference in background and opinion of the people asking the questions tends to broaden the scope of the inquiry.
While social media is good in expanding the number of people exposed to new ideas, Quillen said, it can also get out of control and compromise safety on campus. She likened it to a high school friend of her daughter who posted on Facebook that she was having a party. Hundreds of people showed up.
"That's what happens on campus," she said. "Something that once was contained within a community among people who know each other goes global and becomes potentially dangerous."
The campus is left to manage that situation, she said, while still maintaining its commitment to free inquiry, she said. "It's hard."
"It is important for us to model aggressive and vigorous discussion for our students," Quillen said, "and show that we are a place that provides this."
But the university must acknowledge that there are many things in society that make students feel threatened.
"They are not making it up," she said. "We can't pretend that these things don't exist. We need to find ways to help them share their feelings of vulnerability."