What can we do in the New Year to help build inclusive communities amid a time of polarization?
BY SCOTT D. MILLER
One of the most complex issues for any higher-education president is campus security — not simply guaranteeing physical safety but also the intellectual form, too. As institutions where freedom of expression and civil discourse should, and still do, thrive, colleges and universities today confront unprecedented challenges to ensure the free exchange of ideas and perspectives without punitive repercussions.
Recent trends on some campuses have renewed accusations that campuses suppress, rather than foster, freedom of speech. Commencement speakers are routinely disinvited if deemed controversial. Faculty report being more mindful of students’ sensitivity and need for “safe places” where offensive ideas do not intrude, and more guarded in their lectures and discussion of current events. Some observers have renewed accusations that higher education is dangerously liberal in thought and activism, a study in political correctness run amok.
Other events remind us of the central role that colleges and universities must play in teaching tolerance and fighting bigotry. Opening the new academic year in August at Virginia Wesleyan, I addressed the tragic events at Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, challenging our own campus community “to find ways to support one another and to achieve peace in our society and our world” while recommitting ourselves “to personal excellence and societal achievement.”
Perhaps in those last words can be found a formula for fostering acceptance and tolerance while encouraging diverse points of view — the lifeblood of scholarship and intellectual growth.
We must personalize the journey of building inclusive communities, must find ways to instill confidence in thinking that all members of any community do indeed matter for all of us to succeed. More than that, we must convert that thinking into positive action and peaceful prevention and resolution of conflict.
Virginia Wesleyan’s Center for the Study of Religious Freedom sponsors a variety of presentations, discussions, and workshops each year, not just to demonstrate inclusiveness but to inspire it. The center’s directors, Dr. Craig Wansink and Kelly Jackson, have created a forum in which all are welcome to agree or dissent on the topics under discussion, recognizing that differences of religion, in particular, have often been at the root of persecution and war.
As I have written previously, colleges have special opportunities and obligations to establish behaviors of inclusiveness, to work for social justice and to achieve progress for everyone by doing what they do best: teaching and illuminating.
The volatility and bitter divisions of our nation will not be tamed by any one campus or through any one strategy. Accepting the notion, however, that being inclusive need not be beyond reach in everyday life, and having the courage and conviction to speak up and to permit others do so, as well, offer the best hope for vigorous debate, robust communities and the one paramount goal that all of us can agree on — a secure society.
The Independent News posed a question to community leaders, writers and artists: What can we do in the coming New Year to help build inclusive communities amid a time of polarization? If you would like to share your own thoughts, respond to this project or even complain, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Miller is the president of Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach.
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