President Michael Roth is the author of an op-ed in The Hartford Courant about the debate raging at Wesleyan over questions of race, oppression and free speech. The controversy was sparked by an op-ed written by a sophomore and published in The Wesleyan Argus in September, which raised questions critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many students were upset by the op-ed and called for boycotting the Argus. Roth writes:
They made the important point that opinion pieces like these facilitate the ongoing marginalization of a sector of our student population; and they angrily accused the Argus of contributing to that marginalization.
I’m very glad these important issues were made public — sometimes quite forcefully. Those who think they favor free speech but call for civility in all discussions should remember that battles for freedom of expression are seldom conducted in a privileged atmosphere of upper-class decorum.
Unfortunately, in addition to sparking conversation, the op-ed also generated calls to punish the newspaper. Protests against newspapers, of course, are also part of free speech. But punishment, if successful, can have a chilling effect on future expression.
Many students (I think the great majority) quickly realized this and, contrary to what has been reported in the press, the student newspaper has not been defunded. Students are trying to figure out how to bring more perspectives to the public with digital platforms, and I am confident they can do this without undermining the Argus.
Debates like this illustrate how the “imperatives of freedom and safety [on campus] are sometimes in conflict,” Roth writes.
A campus free from violence is an absolute necessity for a true education, but a campus free from challenge and confrontation would be anathema to it. We must not protect ourselves from disagreement; we must be open to being offended for the sake of learning, and we must be ready to give offense so as to create new opportunities for thinking.
Education worthy of the name is risky — not safe. Education worthy of the name does not hide behind a veneer of civility or political correctness, but instead calls into question our beliefs.
We learn most when we are ready to recognize how many of our ideas are just conventional, no matter how “radical” we think those ideas might be. We learn most when we are ready to consider challenges to our values from outside our comfort zones of political affiliation and personal ties.