Free Speech and Religion

Why Do We Keep Dropping the Coach’s Challenge Flag on Campus Protests?

June 30, 2016  • Nancy Cantor

(Photo Credit: istockphoto)

(Photo Credit: istockphoto)

Nancy Cantor is chancellor of Rutgers University. She spoke at the Festival on June 30th on a panel called “Myth or Reality: If You Want a College Education, You Can Get One.”

Read below for her insights about freedom of speech in college campuses.

Why is it that when it comes to the social world, not all speech is deemed equally worthy of protecting? That is a question that has been dogging me of late, as I listen to commentator after commentator caution student protestors about the importance of respecting freedom of speech and the trap of political correctness.

Wait a minute, I want to say, why are you so ready to throw the proverbial coach’s red flag and call for a reversal of the play on the field when some students’ voices are raised? Whose freedom of expression are they at peril of trampling on? And what about respecting their freedom to speak out when they perceive injustice even when others don’t?

Consider some of the reactions to recent student protests:

When questioning the unquestioning embrace of historical figures like Woodrow Wilson or John Calhoun as campus icons, protesting students are said to be rewriting history. But isn’t it more like they are uncovering relevant aspects of a widely acknowledged, but seemingly ignored, part of history?

When questioning the unquestioning embrace of historical figures as campus icons, protesting students are said to be rewriting history.

To add to the silencing, when universities set up commissions to study the controversial history in question — as Rutgers University is doing in terms of its indigenous campus roots; as Princeton University is doing with regard to the relevance of Woodrow Wilson’s past record to today; and as Yale University did in relinquishing the title of “master” for resident faculty in university houses, the approach is labeled as “giving in.” To the contrary, isn’t this exactly what universities are supposed to do — study vexing questions? It seems quite unreasonable (dare we say politically correct?) to question the motives of students just because they dare to raise the question of the relevance of the past to the present.

Or, consider the common retorts to students’ identifying with Black Lives Matter. Why, some keep asking, do black lives only matter? And how can micro-aggressions experienced by a university student equate with the violence against young black men that has mobilized communities across America?

In answer to the first question, it is tempting to point out that we don’t say the same thing when environmentalists rally around saving an endangered species of bird, for example — why that bird, and not all birds?

And to the second question, we note that leaders of social movements have historically rallied around particular groups and instances of injustice, assuming (as any good scholar would) that the exemplar comes to represent a broader set of concerns that share a family resemblance even as they differ, even substantially, in particularities.

Yes, the experiences of the University of Missouri student body president vary as he walks across campus (though the epithets shouted at him resonate quite broadly) from the risks he might face in his hometown of Chicago. Still, examining these experiences in a common light seems eminently reasonable. And as with any movement, it is also reasonable for others who are even far less likely to experience any such aggressions — micro- or otherwise — to identify too with the negative impact of the stereotype threat experienced by so many in this country, even on our college campuses.

This brings me to why I want to throw my own flag and have the referees say, that upon further review, we’ve found the pundits to be hypocrites. It just seems short-sighted at best when all we can think of to say in the face of student protests is that they may be too quick to see racism, or to perceive an injustice, or to resurrect past actions of those we still glorify despite their (long-forgotten) record.

I lead a campus filled with hopeful, but not in the least privileged, students hailing from so many diverse ethnic, cultural, racial, heritages that it is useless to count but important only to know that nothing predominates. Yes, we could “rest easy” knowing that we are far in the lead in diversity. But it is precisely our students, supported by many faculty, staff, and administrators, who suggested creating the Chancellor’s Commission on Diversity and Transformation. This commission’s mission is to make sure, in part, that the very presence of so much diversity doesn’t lead to more splintering of difference, rather than to the desired leveraging of this great asset.

In this time, when fear seems to overcome solidarity at every turn, we are inspired by the perseverance of residents of our city of Newark, NJ. They are challenged by so much and yet still surviving for 350 years on the dreams of generations seeking freedom — DREAMers long ago and now again. In the face of all that striving, all that diversity sharing a commonality of hope, how can the worst thing be that some students voice concerns — strongly for sure — about whether their voices and some lives really matter?

This piece is adapted from the original version published on THE HUFFINGTON POST.