President Roth reiterates his commitment to freedom of expression coupled with open thinking

At a recent public forum, Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78 reiterated his commitment to a campus culture where free speech thrives alongside efforts to cultivate open and expansive thinking.

“I would try to shift the debate from an individualistic approach to free speech, which usually takes place on libertarian grounds, and to emphasize the freedom to actively listen and develop listening skills rather than shouting, tweeting, or posting skills,” Roth says.

Roth participated in a virtual panel discussion on January 25 titled “Students and Free Speech on Campus.” The event was sponsored by The Chronicle of Higher Education with the support of the Knight Foundation and is available on demand.

Panelists included Amna Khalid, Associate Professor, Carleton College; Eduardo Peñalver, President, University of Seattle; and Robert Sellers, vice provost for equity and inclusion, University of Michigan.

The conversation touched on the topics of how serious the free speech problem on campus is, which determines whether a particular kind of speech is harmful, and how real harm issues have been weaponized by groups seeking to stifle debate. honest.

“In recent years, the perception that the college campus is a place hostile to free speech has taken root among conservative and liberal observers,” said Len Gutkin, editor at Chronicle Review and event moderator.

A recent IPSOS poll commissioned by the Knight Foundation found that students view speech rights as important, but less secure than in the past. They continue to believe that exposure to a wide range of speech is important. The survey showed that students of color believe their speech is less protected. Students also said the campus climate stifles free speech, but speech on campus continues to make nearly one in five feel unsafe, the survey found.

Gutkin suggested that many factors have contributed to the feeling that the American college campus is a more unstable place, including the election of Donald Trump, the high-profile killings of black Americans by police, and the protests that followed. He also put forward the split nature of social media discourse as another possible reason.

Roth stressed that the goal of universities is to create a “safe enough” classroom space to deal with uncomfortable and even dangerous ideas. “My notion is very old-fashioned, I’m afraid. You ask your students to take someone else’s point of view. When you ask them to argue from someone else’s point of view, it encourages them to learn the art of debate, but also encourages them to become active listeners,” Roth said.

If that happens, the campus can become “a much more impressive educational space,” he said. “Not a space where everyone fights for their freedom of expression, but where they learn to listen to the free expression of others,” Roth said.

Roth described instances where he offered a platform to speakers with whom he had public disagreements, including writer Jelani Cobb and philosopher Judith Butler. “It was an example of active disagreement over ideas that matter, not just people gushing,” he said.

Asking students to brainstorm ideas they haven’t had before isn’t just an academic exercise: “That’s one of the great things about a liberal education,” Roth said.

A transcript of the discussion is available online here.

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