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Chronicle of Higher Education

March 16, 2018
Dorothy Leland


When I assumed my first college presidency, a friend gave me a toy magic wand. Over time, I have recognized the prescience of her gift. Academic leaders are sometimes expected to have the ability, with a flick of the wrist, to transform a difficult reality into a world where conflict and dissension no longer exist.

That wand sits on my desk as a reminder of fallibility and of the sometimes volatile complexity of the institution I serve. It also reminds me of the need to reflect deeply on matters that I cannot resolve and to look for new paths forward.

Recent events on my campus have placed me in the caldron of free speech debates that are roiling across campuses nationwide. A student group is working to bring the conservative commentator Ben Shapiro to campus, which is perceived by many people as inviting divisive and sometimes offensive speech into our community. Recent actions by the group seem intended to antagonize our undocumented students in particular.

A nationwide survey suggests that nearly 30 percent of college students think that certain hate speech should be prohibited in order to create a "positive environment." Particularly on public-college campuses, that puts these students at odds with their institutions’ presidents or chancellors, who are prohibited under the First Amendment from suppressing or banning speech (with some limited exceptions), even if that speech is bigoted, hurtful, and hateful.

We can use our own First Amendment rights and the bully pulpit to vigorously condemn the speech, but we cannot stop it from occurring.

For some students, my stance on the First Amendment amounts to condoning the vile speech that I refuse to ban on constitutional grounds. I am now routinely confronted by student protesters with "Chancellor Supports Hate" signs. My own words condemning hateful speech are insufficient to nullify the pain that the speech causes, and thus I am perceived to support hate because I "could have stopped" the hateful words in my capacity as chancellor.

Hateful words are symptoms of much deeper ills, and banishing the words will not cure the social diseases that cause them. These diseases have names — anti-Semitism, sexism, racism, homophobia — and public higher education especially has an obligation to study the history and etiology of these diseases and to identify interventions that aren’t just palliative but restorative.

The fields of study that address such challenges are often maligned and marginalized. As campus leaders, we are also obligated to safeguard the protections of academic freedom to ensure that researchers’ work is not suppressed, and that their words are not penalized because some find them abhorrent on political or religious grounds.

College leaders today are buffeted by condemnation from the left for upholding First Amendment prohibitions against barring speech based on content, even when that content is hateful, and from the right for refusing to punish faculty members whose research and classroom speech is viewed as offensive, biased, and ideologically tainted. Increasingly, the instinct on the right and the left alike is to shut down and silence the other.

But one thing I know for certain is that suppression is not the answer — it is not the path to restorative justice, and it is not the cure for the social ills that plague us.

How can we communicate across the rising ideological barriers that enable us to increasingly demonize the other? Where are those places in our common humanity that might provide touchstones for lowering those barriers just enough to facilitate the listening, learning, and empathy that can bring change?

I don’t know all of the possible answers, but the questions themselves must surely be among the most vexing for today’s college leaders.

There are models to consider and signs of hope to sustain us.

I am thinking of a circumstance involving the Westboro Baptist Church, which is known primarily for espousing bigoted, hateful, homophobic rhetoric. Although its actions — particularly its protests at funerals — have caused significant distress and pain for grieving families and friends, the courts have affirmed the group’s right to display its hateful signs under the provisions of the First Amendment.

So, with no ability to suppress or silence, what hope remains for stopping the hurt, healing the wounds, and curing the disease of homophobia?

I recently listened to a TED talk by Megan Phelps-Roper, who grew up with the family that leads the Westboro group, and who, from an early age, helped picket funerals with hateful signs. She eventually left both her family and the group as a consequence of what she calls the "power of engaging the other." For Megan, this occurred initially through social-media connections that included heated arguments with people who nonetheless resisted demonizing and silencing her:

"It took time, but eventually these conversations planted seeds of doubt in me. My friends on Twitter took the time to understand Westboro’s doctrines, and in doing so, they were able to find inconsistencies I’d missed my entire life. Why did we advocate the death penalty for gays when Jesus said, ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone?’ How could we claim to love our neighbor while at the same time praying for God to destroy them? The truth is that the care shown to me by these strangers on the internet was itself a contradiction. It was growing evidence that people on the other side were not the demons I’d been led to believe."

Phelps-Roper narrates one possible path forward. Equally compelling stories of breaking through hate by finding points of common connection and shared humanity can be found, opening up possibilities for listening, learning, and change.

Finding and creating these paths forward, which can occur only when we move beyond yelling, denigrating, silencing, and suppression, is the most important challenge that college leaders face today.

We must provide support and healing for members of our communities harmed by hate speech. But we must also find nonpunitive, noncondemnatory ways of engaging those members of our campus communities — particularly students — whose anti-Semitic, racist, sexist, or homophobic words anger and hurt others.

We need to focus on the disease, and not just the symptoms. To attempt anything less is to abdicate our responsibilities as educators in these troubling times.

Dorothy Leland is chancellor of the University of California at Merced.