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Campus Controversy: A Better Way



Colleges and universities are facing a major challenge to their reputations among Americans. Many feel that students are being inappropriately shielded from ideas they find challenging or offensive, and confidence in institutions of higher learning has plummeted in the last decade.


Not only does this coddling undermine the mission of those institutions of higher learning, but it can lead to the conflicts we’re witnessing that have made colleges and universities the new battleground in the culture wars. 


The powder keg has exploded with the conflict in Israel and Gaza, laying bare the reality that administrators who take institutional positions supporting specific ideologies when the choice seems easy—as with the summer of protests following the death of George Floyd—will inevitably face accusations of hypocrisy when those decisions feel more complex. 


Higher education campuses would benefit not only from a posture of institutional neutrality on contentious issues around the nation and world, but also from a less normative and punitive, and more collaborative, approach to the more localized conflicts that arise within their own communities. 


For a case study on how this can be done, we can look to Arizona State University, which took on a racially charged situation in the early ‘90s that could easily have devolved into volleys of accusations, lawsuits and campus division. Instead it became a moment of learning for the entire campus community, establishing productive norms and more understanding without the administration having to take the lead. 


Charles Calleros, an ASU law professor, explained the situation in a 1991 letter to the editor in the campus newspaper, The State Press. In response to four black, female students finding a "racially degrading poster" on a door in the dorm, Cholla, they were visiting, a Resident Assistant suggested they talk to the occupants to make their feelings clear. The person who opened the door agreed that the poster should be removed, and even let them make a photocopy.


At a meeting for all the dorm's occupants set up by its staff director, every one of them "seemed to accept the challenging conclusion that the poster was protected by the First Amendment," said Calleros, "and I regard what followed as a model example of constructive response."


The women who'd discovered the poster were given a chance to explain their sense of hurt from it, and while the white students affirmed that they didn't share those stereotypes, the entire group also agreed on the benefit to everyone from learning about other cultures, which led to a statement of support not only for the university's Black History events, but also wider multicultural programs yet to be developed. Those women also initiated further outreach to the room occupants, and the poster owner would publish a newspaper apology.


"The entire University community then poured its energy into the kind of constructive action and dialogue that took place in the Cholla meeting. Students organized an open forum. The message was this: at most, a few individuals on a campus think that the racist poster is humorous; in contrast, a great number of demonstrators represent the more prevalent campus view that degrading racial stereotypes are destructive. Such a message is infinitely more effective than disciplining the students who displayed the racist Poster."


While campus communities have continued to make progress on recognizing and tearing down obstacles to previously marginalized voices being heard, the approach embodied by ASU—encouraging open dialogue rather than retribution and silencing for offensive words—does not have to be relegated to the past.


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