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‘DifCon’ tackles academic freedom, inclusion

From left: Panelists Andrea Constantino, director of Campus Living; Robin Schulze, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; and Raechele Pope, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education, facilitate the discussion. At far right is Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion. Photo: Douglas Levere

By DAVID J. HILL

Published October 27, 2016

“The overarching question here is, how best do we negotiate between free speech and free expression, and statements that people find truly hurtful and degrading?”
Robin Schulze, dean
College of Arts and Sciences

It’s an issue college campuses across the nation, including UB, have been grappling with during the past year: What’s the relationship between academic freedom, free speech and inclusion, and when do the lines get blurred?

It’s a difficult question to answer — one that’s open to much interpretation — and it was the topic of the third installment in this week’s “DifCon: Our Cities. Our Issues.” series.

Wednesday’s conversation in 330 Student Union used recent student protests — one at Yale University, the other at the University of Chicago — to lend context to the issue of academic freedom and inclusion.

Protests erupted at Yale last fall when lecturer Erika Christakis responded to a campus-wide email that encouraged students to avoid culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. In her response, Christakis, who has since resigned, asked, “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious?”

Over the summer, a University of Chicago dean sent a letter to the freshman class informing the new students that the university does not support trigger warnings or safe spaces, and that it does not cancel invited speakers whose topics might prove controversial.

“I think this is perhaps one of the most important DifCons of the series because it raises critical issues for higher education and for learning,” said Teresa Miller, vice provost for equity and inclusion, and organizer of the series, which continues last year’s “Difficult Conversations” series.

Robin Schulze (center) makes a point. Photo: Douglas Levere

Wednesday’s panelists were Andrea Constantino, director of Campus Living; Robin Schulze, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences; and Raechele Pope, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education.

Talking about the recent Hyde Park and New Haven protests, Constantino said those events “raise serious questions about how rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and academic freedom intersect with the quest to address some of the most vexing challenges of diversity and equity faced by our students, faculty and staff.”

“The overarching question here is, how best do we negotiate between free speech and free expression, and statements that people find truly hurtful and degrading? I think every college campus in the United States has wrestled with this,” Schulze said.

Miller pointed out that there are important differences between academic freedom, which covers faculty who teach and research at a university, and freedom of expression, which relates largely to students, staff and visitors to campus. “Inclusion means that everyone feels valued and respected,” she said. “And some of what we’re talking about is when these freedoms clash with the notion of inclusion.”

An audience member takes part in the discussion. Photo: Douglas Levere

As an example of academic freedom, Miller, who teaches in the School of Law, described a pedagogical exercise that’s common in law classrooms: The professor will arrange for someone to burst into the classroom and grab a student’s purse or jacket. After a few seconds, the professor will inform the class that it was just an exercise and then ask students to describe the perpetrator. The point is to discuss how eyewitness testimony can sometimes be unreliable.

“It’s a way of teaching that makes people uncomfortable. And so I always say to people, when you take risks like that in your classroom, you’re responsible for making sure that people never fear for their safety,” Miller said.

The current U.S. presidential election also highlights the difficulty of free speech and inclusion. Pope noted that the political right argues that the left shuts down speakers with more conservative views. However, the right does the same, she said, citing the debate that has ensued over NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem in protest of America’s treatment of minorities.

“The reality of it is that it’s happening everywhere, that we’re not teaching students how to listen to different voices very well,” Pope said. “The real issue is, how do we allow for conversations to happen this way. It’s not correct if the right or the left is doing it.”

DifCon” continues today with a discussion on political polarization in America and concludes on Friday with a talk titled “Lead Threat in Flint — and Buffalo?”