Among my key priorities as a university president is to ensure a campus experience that results in awareness and understanding of new ideas and diverse perspectives. At the same time, I am deeply concerned with declining public confidence in the value and outcomes of higher education, in part growing from the notion that we restrain the free exchange of ideas.
It’s important to recognize that supporting the exchange of ideas grounded in scholarship differs from the support of free speech that, in some cases, may be based only in opinion. Let’s also recognize that despite rhetoric to the contrary, college and university campuses are leading the way for our society in supporting free speech. Nowhere else in our society do we co-locate so many people from diverse backgrounds with diverse perspectives, although the military comes close.
On most campuses, the transformative work of exposure to new ideas happens daily and naturally, without fanfare, because our overarching common mission in American higher education is to nurture curiosity, broadly educate, and prepare students for active participation as engaged citizens. In fact, it is only because we honor and create opportunities for free speech and reactions to that speech as the norm (even speech that some may abhor), that the rare contentious situations occur. It’s precisely because we allow and invite free speech that we experience tension at times on campuses, as we do in our broader society. Our job is to shape the anger and reaction into a learning experience, not a public safety crisis. We do that in our classrooms, residence halls, and other campus venues by creating spaces that emphasize listening and seeking to understand, rather than reacting immediately to ideas we don’t agree with.
In my remarks to freshmen at Widener’s annual opening convocation I challenge our new students, telling them the one thing they absolutely must do before the end of the year is to get to know someone whose background is completely different from their own — the kind of person they never saw in their neighborhood, or went to school with, or hung out with before.
Widener’s Common Ground Initiative was started because we wanted to create an environment that is safe for speech. That environment need not only include so-called safe spaces that serve specific groups. We facilitate discussions in which everyone can share their sometimes conflicting views and explore the possibility of common ground in conversations that may be uncomfortable and even tense, but remain respectful and grounded in a commitment to listening. It is this commitment to listening respectfully that distinguishes Common Ground, an initiative designed to build strong citizenship and civic leadership skills.
Our work comes not from a government-issued mandate but from a deeply principled integrity and commitment to exposing students to a range of perspectives, while also keeping them safe from violent behavior; helping them to seek understanding of views that may at first, and even in the end, seem wrong to them; and supporting them as they undergo the sometimes challenging transformation of finding common ground. If you’d like to see what this work looks like in practice, you are welcome to visit us.