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Viewpoint Diversity on the College Campus

Tomorrow, my son Ben starts his first college classes. For my wife and me, this is an exciting and meaningful moment, coming a week after we moved him into the dorms, settled him in, toured the campus, and said our emotional goodbyes. This beginning reminds me of my own initial time at college—new acquaintances, awkward orientation, and large amphitheater halls with freshmen taking in our first large university lectures.

I also think of the tens of thousands of other new students currently making their way through similar experiences and wondering—“Will I make friends?” “Am I good enough?” “Can I handle the work?” “What will college do for me?” “Everybody says it’s the best time of my life; is that true, and what if it isn’t?” For Ben, who is attending McGill University in Montreal, there is the added issue of being an international student, and dealing with cultural differences, currency exchange, and an unfamiliar learning environment.

Frank Bruni’s Sunday column in the New York Times has an insightful and somewhat sobering perspective on the challenges facing college students. Bruni notes that in the midst of the media’s focus on political protests, a real issue for students is simply that many of them are lonely and have a hard time connecting with others on campus. As a parent, this certainly makes me think, and worry, but I don’t want to dwell on it, or it will make me crazy. This is for Ben to figure out. Anyway, since this blog is about my thoughts on relevant news, I will take the media’s angle and run with it. In fact, reading the news in recent months leads me to conclude that there are at least three overall challenges facing students on campus: a culture that has not figured out to deal with sexual harassment and rape; affirmative action and campus diversity; and the ongoing conflict between free speech and hate speech.

I will focus on the last issue; maybe I will return to the others at another time.

One facet of the campus speech issue deals with the notion of liberal intolerance. Conservatives on campus, seeing themselves as the minority, feel that they are drowned out by liberal voices. One student was recently quoted as saying, “As a Republican in college, I am genuinely afraid to speak about my conservative views in fear of being stereotyped or labeled negatively.”

This fear is repeated somewhat often in college newspapers, conservative journals, and even mainstream or liberal news sources such as the Washington Post and the Huffington Post. There is a website called Heterodox Academy, at which a large group of academics expresses concern about lack of “viewpoint diversity.” And even when a more liberal professor objected to a campus activity at which white students and faculty would leave Evergreen State University for a day, he found himself in a maelstrom of protest, and a new darling of right wing media.

As a progressive Democrat, I want to say to those on the same side on this divide: Such protests do us no good. They not only inflame conservatives and give Fox News something else to complain about, but their intention is to deprive us of the give-and-take that we need as a society and that students desperately need in their intellectual journey.

In my junior year at college, I took a course on nuclear politics and policy. I didn’t realize it when I signed up, but the professor turned out to be on the opposite side of me—a conservative with hawkish views on defense and foreign policy. But his ideas were based on his own research and experience and in the end, gave me more to think about, while making my own points of response sharper. And I got an A for the course.

So on this dispute, I side with the aggrieved conservatives. There is no place for closing down debate on something we don’t agree with, especially on college campuses.

As a parent of an American student at a Montreal university, I will watch these issues this year from a new outlook, and I will be curious to see how they play out in Canada. For now, I say—Good luck Ben! Good luck to all the freshmen out there! And spend some of your time listening to other perspectives; it will make you smarter.

However, it can be argued that the conservatives take the free speech issue too far. I am talking here about invitations to outside speakers—specifically Charles Murray, Ann Coulter, and Milo Yiannopoulos. On this specific point, it gets interesting and complicated—and I will deal with this in my next post.

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