Deborah MacLatchy is the president and vice-chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University.
As president of Wilfrid Laurier University, an institution that has been at the centre of the campus free-speech conversation during the past year, I can see that universities have a greater responsibility than merely protecting free speech. We must also promote better speech in an increasingly polarized and complex world.
Universities exist to create, preserve, apply and pass on knowledge. We have a responsibility to ensure our students recognize the importance of free speech in the pursuit of knowledge. Speech is the path to learning what others think and believe, so that we can learn from each other.
Universities are also beacons of opportunity and serve as springboards for intellectual, social and economic mobility. Our institutions must respect the dignity of those who come to our campuses to study, research and teach. To do so, we strive to create campus environments that support human rights for everyone.
On our modern, globally-focused and diverse university campuses, there are times when students will undoubtedly encounter views they find challenging and possibly offensive. It is not the role of a university to shelter students from intellectual discomfort or to censor speech that falls within the limits of Canada’s laws on discrimination, harassment and hate speech. Doing so would set a dangerous precedent and be antithetical to the spirit of open inquiry.
In the face of language that threatens the humanity of our students, staff or faculty, we must continually promote better speech. This means questioning and challenging opinions with sound arguments and evidence. Students and faculty must be able to share views and experiences while simultaneously committing to high ethical and intellectual standards for open, constructive conversations.
This requires critical reflection. Are our arguments based on evidence? Have we listened to the knowledge and experiences of others? Have we tested our assumptions? How can we continue to learn and pursue the truth? This is how universities foster an environment for intellectual growth and the development of new knowledge.
A university’s commitment to better speech demands a long-term focus on creating environments – both inside and outside of the classroom – where meaningful dialogue, not individual platforms, is the norm. One approach to ensure we uphold a high standard of discourse on our campuses is to practice inclusive freedom, a concept proposed by political philosopher Dr. Sigal Ben-Porath of the University of Pennsylvania. Inclusive freedom involves a vigorous commitment to free speech, coupled with the assurance that all individuals have an opportunity to engage in free expression, inquiry and learning.
Over the past few years, inflammatory debate and rhetoric have taken centre stage in the conversation surrounding free speech on university campuses across North America. From Berkeley to Laurier, the media have covered incidents of controversial speakers and ideological clashes on campus. Speech that denigrates the dignity and humanity of members of society is challenged at universities because our communities fully engage in free expression.
Through practicing and emphasizing better speech, we can confront controversial views with intellectually rigorous and constructive dialogue. Sometimes the ideal of debate cannot happen in real time. Organizing alternative programming, inviting speakers to express opposing views and/or engaging in non-violent protests are strategies that contribute to a campus that values inclusive freedom.
In the face of increasing polarization in society, universities must be a stabilizing force. We must set the bar for how people with very diverse perspectives can engage in difficult discussions. The real exchange of ideas takes place in an atmosphere that both respects experiences and is grounded in evidence and scholarship.
At Wilfrid Laurier University, we have reaffirmed our commitment to free expression and its importance in testing and challenging a range of perspectives and ideas. Our commitment has been enshrined recently in our Statement on Freedom of Expression that was overwhelmingly approved by the university’s senate and endorsed by our board of governors.
Institutions of higher learning are educating our future leaders. Universities teach students to appreciate how intellectual discomfort leads to greater understanding. Students must learn how to examine ideas, identify faulty logic and counter opposing opinions with better, evidence-based arguments. This embodies the higher standard for expression that is truly better speech.
This is a lofty goal in the era of polarized discourse. It is a goal to which we and all other universities must aspire. This is why universities exist.