Students on the other side of the debate feel like they are not heard in the university’s “cultural diversity agenda”. Many of them do not personally agree with alt-right speakers’ choice of words or a lot of their positions. The trade off is that alt-right speeches level the playing field in the cultural diversity wars. Here are measures to take the campus back from the alt-right.
Separating the Symptom from the Problem
It is not surprising that campus free speech debate has become as polarized as the national conversations about immigration, Black Lives Matter, and recruiting women in the technology sector. What is interesting is how the different points of views on campus inadvertently collude in making it difficult to create teachable moments out of the controversy. After all, isn’t this expected in higher education?
Too many university administrators are locked into the mindset that objections to alt-right speakers on campus pit free speech against making students feel safe. Taking the view that protecting free speech is of utmost importance leaves many students of color, women, the differently abled, social justice advocates, and religious minorities with the sense that the university is complicit in the harm caused by vitriolic alt-right hate speech. The administration’s support for freedom of speech is too often followed by requests for students to lean into the discomfort of hate speech so that they can learn how to accept different points of view. The result is that many students are left feeling like salt has been poured on their wounds. The higher education setting they expected to provide a sense of safety suddenly becomes an additional source of pain.
Students on the other side of the debate feel like they are not heard in the university’s “cultural diversity agenda”. Many of them do not personally agree with alt-right speakers’ choice of words or a lot of their positions.The tradeoff is that alt-right speeches level the playing field in the cultural diversity wars. They feel a sense of having been forced to consume “liberal” academic materials and lectures for which they take issue. They sit on the sidelines too often in classroom discussions because it feels unsafe to speak their minds. In their experience, only the person who acknowledges power and privilege, rejects scholarly writings grounded in hegemony, or promotes giving the voiceless center stage is seriously listened to. Everyone else is too privileged or unaware of their bias to participate in any serious way. The echo chamber nauseates and angers them. They desperately want to feel included without compromising their values.
Students on both sides want to be heard and appreciated, which is also what the administration encourages them to do. If the students did not care about connecting on the issues, they would go about their lives doing what they came to the campus for – studying and getting through academic life. Their passion for taking part in the debate is evident in selecting alt-right speakers and organizing protests against them. Their collective passion is what makes the debate an opportunity to help all students develop into responsible, inclusive citizens.
Cultural diversity creates more problems than solutions if unmanaged. Things have gotten out of hand on colleges campuses in cultural diversity debates because they have been managed by policing instead of through diversity education. Professors, student services, and administrators cannot do much about what alt-right speakers invited to campus say and do once they are let loose on stage. Some are there with an agenda, and some encourage violence to make make the point that those on the other side are evil. Not much can be done about the people from outside the campus who attend the alt-right speeches to instigate instead of peacefully protest. The good news is that those groups are not on campus every day, but everyone else is.
How to Take Campuses Back From the Alt-right
The way out is to create an initiative with diversity education solutions that constantly encourage students to think about and discuss controversial issues in safe spaces. The spaces can be created in the classroom, in campus events designed for student learning, threaded discussions, campus publications, and in facilitated dialogs.
Here are seven things that must happen to level the cultural diversity conservation field:
- Take a “Soft on People, Hard of Removing Barriers to Inclusion” approach. Debates that create teachable moments seldom have a right and wrong side. Students on each side need to be taken care of and taken seriously to create the possibility for life learning.
- Separate the symptom from the real problem. Inflammatory language used in a debate is divisive and adds little if any educational value. If administrators could get speakers to stop using such language, they would feel like considerable progress was being made. However, that is only a symptom of a larger problem. As stated above, students bring inflammatory speakers to campus to make a point about what they value. The alt-right speaker gives them a voice that they feel is not welcome on campus otherwise.
- Create safe learning community spaces for students with clear, learning-centered ground rules. Students need to be coached on how to communicate effectively about differences. Ground rules that put boundaries on what it means to engage civically offer the safety needed for participants to lean into discomfort. The facilitator models how to listen intentionally and support students when they stumble in their best efforts to speak their truth.
- Giving all students, regardless of point of view, an ear along with deep listening so that they feel understood will break the cycle of escalating tension. We all want to be heard. One of the challenges of talking about cultural diversity is that many of us are reluctant to share or our values, opinions, and beliefs out of fear that we will be misunderstood.
- Social science research indicates that when people with different views listen to each other without judgment, contentious relationships are changed for the better. Give the students harmed by alt-right speech opportunities to feel understood and protected. They are typically willing to hear the voices behind hate speech when they can respond without interruption and receive a heartfelt response from the listener. Use activities that promote deep listening and encourage all voices to be heard without a need for resolution.
- Help students across the political aisles see value in collaborating on a project designed to create a more inclusive campus atmosphere for themselves and future students. If the groups are too polarized to feel comfortable taking this step, find the handful who are ready. Get started with them. The rest will follow.
- Measure the results. Many of the ideas used to get students to connect better and the activities that emerge will be novel. Measuring what works is invaluable in developing evidence-based best practices.
Putting it All Together
Cultural diversity promises to contribute to a better teaching and learning experience on college campuses. Cultural diversity without a management plan results in cultural collisions that cause one fire that needs putting out after another. Managing cultural diversity on campus is a must. This article presented six measures administrators can take to create value when cultural diversity debates inevitably surface on campus.
About the Author
Billy Vaughn, Ph.D. CDP CDT CDE is director of the Diversity Executive Leadership Academy and an award-winning cultural diversity and inclusion expert. His latest book, Leading Cultural Diversity, is scheduled for release in January 2018. Learn more about the author at http://dtui.com/about-dtui-com/billy-e-vaughn-biography/.
Vaughn, B.E. (May 2017). Organizational Leadership: When Students Invite Ann Coulter to Campus. Diversity Officer Magazine. http://diversityofficermagazine.com/organizational-leadership-campus-crisis/