Sheltered discourse on campus
by Sara Fleming
Last month, Bernie Sanders, socialist senator from Vermont and 2016 presidential candidate, spoke to 12,000 students at Liberty University, a Christian college known for its conservatism. Unsurprisingly, Liberty University doesn’t often invite self-proclaimed socialists to speak at their campus. In fact, Sanders was the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so. But this event wasn’t interesting just for the content of Sanders’ words but more for the fact that these opposing perspectives met at all.
Liberty University is an institution that espouses a particular religious and political doctrine which is unsurprising given that more than 90 percent of the student body identifies as conservative, and faculty must identify with certain religious beliefs to teach there. Yet at this college, Sanders received a largely polite response. According to reports, his message on the immorality of the wealth gap resonated with students, although they remained unlikely to support him as a candidate because of his views on social issues.
The media increasingly portrays liberal arts colleges and secular private universities as reluctant to acknowledge other points of view or engage campus in discussion. Former Clinton administration representative and FOX News commentator published an editorial in The Daily Beast entitled “How Liberals Ruined College.” She argues that the predominance of leftism on campuses has made them places of “fear and intimidation ” because young liberals will purportedly be offended by anything they disagree with or find politically incorrect. This silences opportunities for conservative opinons.
A recent editorial in The New York Times by Judith Shulevitz criticized the idea of providing “safe spaces” in college as “an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomfiting or distressing viewpoints.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) lists cases in which speakers were disinvited from college campuses after student backlash regarding their beliefs—a disproportionate amount coming from liberal institutions. In response to Sanders’ appearance, Andrew T. Walker wrote in The National Review, “Why is it that conservative Christians are the adults in the room while liberals turn schools into ideologically rigid precincts with safe houses for infantile students?”
The validity of these criticisms is up for interpretation, and they may be grounded in anti-liberal bias rather than accurate evidence. Even so, they bring to light a point for us, students of a liberal arts college with a predominately left-leaning student body. We’d like to characterize Colorado College as an institution where liberal ideas are popular because we’ve had productive dialogue about politics and explored the reasoning on both sides, not because we maintain a certain doctrine of “elitist liberalism” that is closed to outside opinions. The speakers that CC brings to campus play a role in either promoting or limiting political dialogue.
Within the college, however, positions vary as to whether CC has effectively created an atmosphere in which this can happen. Professor of Political Science Tim Fuller, who has taught at CC since the 1960s, is positive when it comes to the college’s incorporation of outside speakers.
“A significant proportion of public lectures are analytical in nature: the first order of business is to provide information, insight, historical perspective on important questions and not necessarily to advocate or oppose specific policy… I would say that in terms of having speakers that represent a wide range of political positions, they do that too—liberal speakers, conservative speakers.” Fuller said. “There’s no single ideological perspective that defines [speakers at CC].”
Specifically, Fuller noted, CC holds a symposium on the American presidency every election cycle, at which people who represent various political positions, as well as political scientists with different views, speak and debate.
The touchiest incident he recalled was when CC invited Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian activist, scholar and spokeswoman, to speak at a symposium on the first anniversary of 9/11. An article in the New York Times claimed the invitation and Ms. Ashrawi’s acceptance angered Jewish groups in Colorado and some Jewish students “who have accused the college of insensitivity for scheduling her to speak one day after the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.” Students became concerned that one side or the other would not be adequately represented. Fuller believes that the College successfully maintained a balanced position and promoted a discussion based on careful reflection.
“We have always been very careful to make a distinction between the duty of department to advance people’s understanding of political process and understand the implications of alternative policy positions, without adopting a particular political stance,” Fuller said. “The college understands itself to be a forum in which these important debates can be carried on in a civilized matter.”
Nonetheless, ideas of CC and other institutions as close-minded to constructive dialogue persist. CC is in a somewhat unique position among colleges in that the political affiliation of the student body is starkly different from that of residents in the Colorado Springs community. Community members may be more likely to attend and appreciate events that are not political in nature. While some events, such as the recent symposium on capital punishment, which had a clear liberal leaning, have been well-attended by the community, according to Fuller, other Colorado Springs residents view CC as suspiciously liberal. As Fuller points out, however, “many community members recognize that it would be an oversimplification to define the college on a particular point on the political spectrum.”
Senior Katherine Perry, who is a member of CC’s less prominent political organization, College Republicans, feels that the college’s left-leaning character does at times limit the conversation. “I’d say [the college] does a good job at trying to make it equal, but because of how liberal the school is and the people who work at it, it’s not completely balanced…Speakers tend to be more liberal than conservative because [the college] knows more people will come to those events,” Perry said.
Perry mentioned an incident where a CC student asked a visiting senator a question about gun rights. When the student didn’t like the answer, he walked out of the room.
The issue of free speech is one that sometimes finds its way into the forefront of discussions about political affiliation, prompting the question of whether an overwhelming majority consensus, by nature, suppresses those with dissenting opinions simply through fear of social exclusion or retaliation. Some even believe that the college itself rigidly defines restrictions on free speech. FIRE ranked CC as a “red-light” institution, meaning that it “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech,” namely the sexual harassment policy and the section of student conduct policies about respect. To be fair, though, 55 percent of the colleges that FIRE examined received this designation, and FIRE’s definitions of free speech are dubious, considering policies that intend to limit verbal harassment a violation of the First Amendment, in some cases. FIRE was particularly concerned about an issue in 2008, in which the college sought disciplinary action against two male students who distributed a parody of the Feminist and Gender Studies Department’s Monthly Rag that some found offensive and derogatory. FIRE, however, viewed the college’s actions as a violation of the First Amendment rights of the male students. FIRE’s classifications may be extreme, but they do illuminate the debate between the right to free speech and a right to not be objectified.
As students, we play an important role in drawing the line that coincides with our role in deciding, through who we choose to bring to our school, how welcoming we want to be to other opinions. We don’t have to permit harassment or bring a climate change denier or Creationist to speak on campus, but an environment where unpopular viewpoints can be expressed and debated in a constructive way should be feasible. If we refuse to acknowledge other points of view, it will become impossible to justify our own.