From Hong Kong to the US, campuses are where real change takes root, so let the dialogue begin

David Oxtoby says students on both sides of the Pacific have grappled with tough social and political issues, and calls on academic leaders to create healthy environments for meaningful debate on divergent ideas

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 5:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 8:33pm

During the past few years, young people on both sides of the Pacific have been in the vanguard of movements focusing on racial, ethnic, and socio-economic discrimination, and academic and political freedom.

In Hong Kong, student protesters in the “umbrella movement” occupied the city’s commercial districts for three months in 2014, and have continued to press their causes, with five Occupy activists elected to the Legislative Council in September.

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On campuses across the United States over the last year, students have grappled with issues of racial and economic discrimination and inequality, campus sexual assault, and free speech. Students of colour came together last year as part of the national movement, “Black Lives Matter”. Student protests have demanded the firing of college leaders, including presidents, and some of those efforts have been successful. Adding fuel to campus unrest in the US has been a presidential election campaign that has ­included intolerance for different viewpoints and even hate speech.

With the parallels across the Pacific, there are also important differences. Demands in Hong Kong focus on national-level issues, such as the relationship of Hong Kong and China, while US student demands (though driven by national concerns) focus on campus-level issues, such as bias in the classroom and lack of diversity among faculty and staff.

A false opposition is sometimes set up between inclusivity and free speech; these are core values, not in conflict with one another

Students want deep and immediate change right now. They criticise our responses to their concerns for being too little and too slow. Tensions can escalate, disrupting civil discourse and hardening the positions of groups with opposing views. What can we do – especially those of us charged with teaching tomorrow’s leaders – to create healthy environments that will facilitate important and long-overdue change?

I firmly believe that educational institutions are exactly where these tough discussions on highly controversial topics should and must take place. My highest priorities are:

• To cultivate an inclusive, welcoming environment where every member of the community is a vital part of the life and discourse of the college.

• To ensure that our college is a place where we respect the right to speak, rebut, and respond – even if we don’t agree.

As our student-body president said at convocation this fall, in our national dialogue a false opposition is sometimes set up between inclusivity and free speech; these are core values, not in conflict with one another, but both equally critical to our mission.

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What in our experience might be helpful for academic leaders in Hong Kong? First, start conversations and build relationships before crises start and protests are launched.

On our campus, we established a President’s Advisory Committee on Diversity some 10 years ago, and we spent the 2014-15 academic year developing a strategic plan for diversity and focusing board discussions on this issue, so that when protests started in November 2015, I immediately invited the diversity committee to join me in meeting with nearly 200 students. They brought forth a list of demands for more resources for minority and other identity groups, for low-income students, and for mental health care. They called for increased diversity among faculty, students and staff. Students of colour cited countless individual incidents. Their stories affected me on a personal level and have informed and shaped my presidential role. Further, truly listen to enable free speech and create a respectful environment in which it can occur. I met with student groups who identify in very different ways – as international students, as Latino, black, or multiracial students, and as students whose identities intersect in ways we haven’t seen in the past.

Academic freedom is a core value for colleges and universities, and it applies both to faculty and to students

These meetings (each including five to 10 students) ensured continuing dialogue and will provide for adjustments in our strategic plan as we become a more global and diverse institution.

Three concluding observations:

• On American campuses, the phrase “safe spaces” is used by students to designate a place where they can spend time with others who are similar to them, and not have to explain themselves or their identities. Of course, freedom of association is a vital right, but what is not right is to exclude certain people from public spaces because they might challenge your views. I prefer to think of a true campus “safe space” as a place where a diverse group of people can come together, have difficult dialogues about challenging issues, listen respectfully, and learn from one another.

• Protest is one form of free speech, and the point of protest is to disrupt “business as usual”, to cause us to listen to a different voice. But if protest is used to shout down others, and to prevent them being heard, then it is a reduction, not an enhancement of free speech. Campus protests should add to our conversations, not close them down.

• Academic freedom is a core value for colleges and universities, and it applies both to faculty and to students. It helps to ensure that controversial views can be put forward and argued without risk of being penalised or fired. But with such freedom comes responsibility: an obligation to make arguments using real evidence, and to respect and encourage different points of view in classes and in public discussions. It is not a shield that protects irresponsible action.

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These are challenging, sometimes tumultuous times. But they are also very promising times for all of us. US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, when she visited our campus last fall, encouraged students to engage in their campus life and in civic life. She reminded them that “because you’re here, because of all the people who came before you who opened the doors to this college, you have to keep those doors open”.

Our student activists are calling attention to problems and making a difference. I can’t think of a place I would rather be right now than on an active college campus that is a marketplace of diverse and divergent ideas and opinions, in an atmosphere that welcomes all and looks to solutions, not divisions.

David Oxtoby is president of Pomona College in Claremont, California