As the country struggles to restore civility in public discourse, universities are finding it no less difficult to foster open dialogue about polarizing issues in a way that respects all sides. Many campuses seem to be falling into the stereotype of elite liberal institutions where conservative figures are vilified before they even arrive.
That scene more often occurs when political lightning rods like Milo Yiannopoulos and Robert Spencer come to speak. At Stanford, tensions have flared up in casual student encounters around the time of the Senate confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh — and will no doubt come to a boil again if Republican students proceed with plans to host far-right commentator Dinesh D'Souza.
There may be only so much a university can do when provocateurs appeal to its students strongly enough to prompt an invite to campus. Administrators want to respect students' wishes and autonomy, and thus often deal with controversy only after it is at their doorstep.
Stanford, for instance, used to have a policy — like many other colleges — that sought to shield students from hateful speech pre-emptively. But a Santa Clara County judge struck down the university's speech code in 1995, ruling that it was unconstitutionally broad and based on content.
What, then, is a university to do? Should it act like a guardian and figure out other ways to insulate students from speakers deemed intentionally incendiary? Or is a university obliged to allow students to encounter those with extreme views because they will eventually have to confront that radicalism in the real world?
Anna Boch, a Ph.D. student in sociology at Stanford, says yes. "It's a mistake to prepare students by just letting them shut someone down, rather than allowing them to critically engage with what's being said."
Boch, a graduate fellow at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society in 2018, is particularly focused on the challenges universities face in trying to foster free speech on campus. Specifically, she researches whether restrictions on so-called "hate speech" unintentionally discourage people from discussing important, controversial topics.
Boch counts herself among the legions of liberal academics at Stanford, but she says the value of hearing opposing perspectives becomes clear in classes she has taught. In one section she led as a teaching assistant, she remembers how a thick silence would descend upon the room whenever the lone conservative student spoke.
"I was glad when he talked because, even if I or others in the class didn't agree with him, we shouldn't just shun him into silence," Boch said. "It's tricky because, while Stanford may be really liberal, the larger world is more equally divided between conservative and liberal ideologies."
She points to a Cato Institute survey published in 2017 that asked Americans about many aspects of free speech and tolerance. In that study, the Libertarian think tank concluded that, overall, Americans say political correctness has squelched discussions that society needs to have. Findings specifically related to college campuses underscore the challenge Boch describes: Almost two-thirds of those surveyed say colleges should expose students to "all types of viewpoints even if they are offensive or biased against certain groups.”
But the survey also acknowledged a conflict, reporting that a slim majority (53 percent) also agrees that colleges have "an obligation to protect students from offensive speech and ideas that could create a difficult learning environment."
That is the bind Stanford finds itself in today. Last fall, the university attempted to advance its commitment to that free exchange of ideas through “Cardinal Conversations,” a series of moderated discussions with prominent figures who held contrasting views on contentious issues. Student leaders accused the series of lacking diversity among its speakers and transparency into the selection process.
Now, Stanford is rethinking the series and changing its format and structure so as to ensure a more diverse group of speakers and topics. Boch, for her part, says she sympathizes with members of groups who say they feel threatened by certain individuals who, for instance, voice extreme views on immigration or race. And she suspects that student reactions are heightened in America, given its many residential colleges.
"So, I think it's this feeling of, 'This person is coming into my home, and they're going to say these hateful things in my home,'" Boch explained. "I can understand that very visceral feeling of their privacy being invaded."
Stanford Provost Persis Drell, in a blog post at the start of the school year, underscored the university’s commitment to both the free exchange of ideas and fostering an inclusive campus. “At the outset of this effort,” Drell said, “we acknowledged that Cardinal Conversations was experimental in nature and that the input of the campus community would be vital to its success.”
Boch agrees with the student leaders at Stanford calling for more transparency in the process of selecting the speakers and the students who will participate in deciding the direction of Cardinal Conversations going forward.
Perhaps their biggest demand is that the series be more student-centric. "Cardinal Conversations is poorly designed to encourage real dialogue and must either be replaced or supplemented by a student-centered program," senior Matthew Wigler, a student senator, was quoted as saying in the Stanford Daily.
In a memo cited by the student newspaper, Wigler criticized the university for holding "speeches and lectures rather than discussions."
To that end, Boch recommends complementary activities like a lottery that would allow a smaller group of students to sit down with speakers the next day over lunch for a more intimate discussion, in a setting where the power dynamic isn't skewed by the guest being up on stage and boosted by the house AV system.
As for speakers invited by students, Boch points to a procedure introduced by UC Berkeley after Milo Yiannopoulos appeared there in 2017 and ended up costing the university $800,000 to pay for a massive security detail. When a student group invites someone who is highly controversial and likely to disrupt the campus community, the organization must provide an extensive written explanation for why the person is so important to the group and valuable for the campus to hear.
For now, though, Boch expects universities to continue grappling with the issue of free speech on campus for a long time, and that's why she finds the topic so fascinating. Because no matter what solution is implemented, there will be ethical tradeoffs.
"There's the value of equality and treating everyone fairly and with dignity. And there's also a value of freedom of expression," she said, "and those values don't always go together."