Two related higher education issues are getting a lot of media attention these days. The first is the perception that colleges across the country are indoctrinating students to embrace liberal political values. The second is the impression that colleges are censoring speech with the goal of keeping students “safe” from controversial or offensive points of view.
Research on the evolution of college students’ political views refutes the myth that faculty indoctrinate students. Sociologist Kyle Dodson, who has studied this topic extensively, has found that students who are most academically engaged moderate their political views during their college years, rather than becoming more extreme. I believe this is because a good college education equips students to consider perspectives different from their own.
Gettysburg faculty recognize that their role is not to proselytize, but rather to teach evidence-based reasoning; how to approach issues from multiple viewpoints; and how to challenge and support arguments using facts and thoughtful analysis. Our students understand the importance of this as well.
For example, following the presidential election, our students organized and hosted a debate on a variety of policy issues, including immigration, national security, education, and healthcare reform. The student panel represented the College Republicans, College Democrats, College Independents, the Anti-Capitalist Collective, Young Americans for Freedom, and Young Americans for Liberty.
This approach is consistent with one of our core institutional values, “the free and open exchange of ideas.” As an educational institution, we value freedom of expression—and in many ways, this value is consistent with what we are hoping to achieve with “a diverse and inclusive learning environment,” another core Gettysburg value. However, there are times when these values push up against each other. For instance, when someone makes comments that are offensive to other members of our community, whose rights should be protected?
Colleges and universities continue to wrestle with how best to balance these competing values—and it’s complicated. So where does Gettysburg stand?
First and foremost, we subscribe to the idea that the best response to offensive speech is more speech. Although we acknowledge the importance of inclusion, we must prepare our students to confront offensive speech and bias, as they undoubtedly will experience it after they leave Gettysburg.
Second, we attract a variety of speakers to our campus— from Senator Bernie Sanders to Congresswoman Kay Granger— who possess a wide spectrum of political viewpoints. We have also been very clear that hosting a particular speaker does not mean that the institution condones his or her views.
Lastly, we continue to discuss and to strengthen our freedom of expression policy. That policy notes that “any effort by members of the College community to limit openness in this academic community is a matter of serious concern and militates against the freedom of expression…No group or individual has the right to interfere with the legitimate activity of other authorized persons and groups as interference with expression compromises the College’s goal of creating an environment where issues can be openly discussed.” The exceptions to this are very narrowly defined (e.g. speech that constitutes a demonstrable threat or that violates the law).
I am certain that we will not all agree on how to approach every speaker or how to respond to every instance of offensive speech. What I can assure you is that as we face these issues, we are guided by our institutional values and Gettysburg’s mission as a liberal arts college—to prepare our students for fulfilling personal and professional lives, and lives of effective leadership and citizenship.
Janet Morgan Riggs ’77