Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Forum on Free Discourse in an Inclusive Community

Forum on Free Discourse in an Inclusive Community

Last night, we hosted a forum with a packed audience in Degenstein Theatre moderated by Dena Salerno (Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion) and Scott Kershner (Chaplain) with Professors Nick Clark (political science), Michele DeMary (political science), Laura Dougherty (Theatre), Shari Jacobson (Anthropology), Jeff Mann (Religion), Laurence Roth (English), Hasanthika Sirisena (Creative Writing), Apryl Williams (Sociology), and Coleen Zoller (Philosophy) serving as panelists.

The panel addressed the question, “What is acceptable discourse in a community of respect, and how do we respond to the conflict between freedom of speech and hate speech?” This included prepared comments from Professors Clark, Sirisena, Jacobson, and Mann followed by the entire panel responding to questions posed by our student.

I shared a few framing thoughts, which included:

·      The 1940 Statement of Principle on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors states that “Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”
·      We invite discourse from divergent opinions, but as a university we hold them to the same standards of scholarly rigor as in our own work.
·      This does not mean that all positions and perspectives are given equal value. As we develop as scholars and thinkers, we confirm and strengthen positions we hold to be true. In the classroom, faculty profess what they have come to believe is true through a career of research, debate, and reflection.
·      As a private institution Susquehanna is subject to a different set of expectations in its approach to contemporary issues from public universities. Like faculty in the classroom, we too, can identify and embrace particular values as an institution that shape the decisions of whom we invite to campus and declarations we make as an institution.
o   Our Mission Statement, Guiding Values, and Statements on Diversity and Inclusiveness and Ethical Living are prominent examples of this, but there are many other subtler positions we take as a university.

I was proud of our students for their very thoughtful questions and grateful to our faculty and staff for their rich, provocative, and instructive responses.

Some of my takeaways were:

·      “Speech is never free.” There are  legal, regulatory, and societal consequences for what we say and where we can say it.
·      The precision of the language we use around this topic is challenging and important.
·      Hate speech is never victimless, and as a community, we need to advocate for the safety and well-being of all our neighbors.
·      We need to continue to have difficult conversations, and these will sometimes make participants uncomfortable. Some of these conversations and topics have a better home in the classroom than on stage.
·      We need to help our students and each other develop the skills to effectively respond to hate speech and other acts of exclusion and prejudice.

This was an important first conversation for the year on the subject of inclusion. I am excited and hopeful for productive ongoing dialog on this important topic.


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