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A political cartoon depicts a speaker at a climate summit outlining benefits of action. The bulleted list reads: “energy independence,” “preserve rainforests,” “sustainability,” “green jobs,” “livable cities,” “renewables,” “clean water, air” “healthy children,” “etc., etc.” A skeptic in the audience asks “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”

Copyright Joel Pett, reprinted by permission.

We should think about campus speech debates the way my hometown political cartoonist, Joel Pett, suggested we think about climate change. Some years ago, Pett published a political cartoon satirizing climate change denial: a speaker onstage at a climate summit is explaining the many benefits of greener environmental policies. In the crowd, a defiant climate skeptic stands up and exclaims, “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”

If we replace meteorology with the university, this cartoon captures today’s debates about campus speech climates. It also suggests a better way to think about them. Most of us know the main arguments. On the one side, there are those who decry the overindulgence of today’s fragile students and the ways colleges protect them from ideas that might challenge their beliefs. These speech climate activists point to surveys by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Heterodox Academy or the Knight Foundation indicating that many students (both liberals and conservatives, though more of the latter) are reluctant to express their ideas in class for fear of offending others or publicly stating an unpopular viewpoint. On the other side, speech climate deniers dismiss calls for viewpoint diversity as disingenuous attempts to mask bigotry in the seemingly neutral language of liberal values. They also accuse right-wing media outlets of exaggerating a minor problem in order to discredit the university as a bastion of so-called wokeism.

As both a co-chair of my campus’s Heterodox Academy chapter and a co-chair of a university committee working to improve the culture of (what I call) inclusive open inquiry, I’ve engaged in versions of these speech climate debates with different campus actors over and over again. I give much credence to the survey results because they confirm more or less what my eyes and ears (and students and colleagues) also report. I am, nevertheless, concerned about the dangers of overstating the problem and am sympathetic to skeptics, such as Elizabeth Niehaus, who make the case that the survey data do not provide a sufficiently nuanced understanding of the reasons students choose to keep quiet. In general, however, the more I have these conversations, the less I feel the need to debate with the skeptics and the more I return in my mind to Pett’s climate cartoon. Here’s why.

Regardless of whether the speech is as chilled as some claim, regardless of the degree to which self-censorship thwarts the exchange of ideas, we all stand to benefit from the proliferation of discussions these concerns have set off. Because of the mushrooming of organizations like Heterodox Academy, the Constructive Dialogue Institute, Braver Angels and many others, as well as the civil discourse initiatives of a growing number of colleges and universities, more people than ever before are talking about how we ought to talk with one another in an academic community. We’re beginning to have a discussion, beyond the realm of specialists and experts, about the meaning of academic inquiry, the search for truth and the advancement of knowledge.

There is new energy in conversations about higher education not merely as job training but also as a public good and the role it ought to play in a democratic society. We’re opening our eyes to the necessary interdependence of academic freedom, open inquiry, diversity, equality and inclusion. In short, we are finally beginning to discuss collectively the purpose of the university. Again, experts have discussed this for years, but now a broader swath of the university community is joining the conversation. This can only make the university better.

The conversation may also have a de-siloing effect. Some previously unrelated academic disciplines are finding common cause around this issue. One would expect faculty in education, law or political science to be invested in the topic of speech climate. But I’ve heard from colleagues in less likely fields. A professor in the college of design discussed with me how different spatial configurations and spatial aesthetics affect the way we communicate with one another. An art professor has a finely tuned understanding of the relationship between public art, morality and civic identity. Colleagues in health and exercise science as well as psychology cite the research concerning the ways sleep, diet and exercise affect stress and anxiety, which, in turn, affect one’s ability to converse with others more thoughtfully, patiently and confidently. A colleague working on the concept of nuance in early modern literature has much to say about the way poetic language serves as a corrective to our reflexive and crudely binary ways of communicating. The topic of campus speech is proving to be a big tent, and everyone can get in on the act.

The topic ushers in a partial corrective to the overspecialization that has long plagued the university. Many of us have lamented for years that we are unable to have fruitful intellectual conversation with anyone beyond our rarefied fields of research and writing. Maybe this new coalescence around campus speech will gradually help unify our campuses and assuage what many describe as intellectual isolation.

Nuance may be the single most important element of the conversations I’ve been having. When we sit down face-to-face and discuss the campus speech climate in an unhurried manner, we invariably reach a degree of subtlety that the headlines and social media do not. I’ve gone far into the weeds with colleagues and students on the question of whether particular invited speakers contribute to the university’s intellectual mission. We’ve scrutinized how one-off events as opposed to recurring classroom conversations make very different contributions to academic inquiry. We’ve painstakingly discussed the University of Chicago’s Kalven report, Vanderbilt University chancellor Daniel Diermeier’s concept of “principled neutrality” and whether a university’s position statement on antiracism is different from an institutional position on, say, the war in Ukraine (I think it is). We’ve agonized over the paradoxical situation of a student who cannot bracket off her lived experience and yet must also play devil’s advocate (i.e., step outside herself) in an effort to examine ideas objectively. We often disagree on these matters, but I like to think that we have disagreed constructively, that we’ve learned something from one another and, perhaps more importantly, that we’ve added to a bedrock of mutual trust and respect on which future learning will arise.

All these conversations—and I’ve had them with students, faculty, staff and administrators—start with the discussion of the campus speech climate. We’re finally beginning to have the conversation about the university that we should have been having all along. Few of us, unless we have specifically studied higher education, know much about the history of the institution or its philosophical underpinnings. In our specialized training, we have rarely needed to think in any sustained way about the meaning of phrases like “the search for truth,” “the advancement of knowledge” or “education for democratic citizenship.” Most of us have never stopped to think about the difference between free speech and academic freedom, or the difference between speech and inquiry.

This is changing. We are starting to discuss these matters with our fellow campus citizens. And it’s the campus speech climate debate that is catalyzing the conversation. Those who, understandably, despair in this age of vicious polarization and prefer to lie low rather than take a side will perhaps find solace in this modest observation that something good is emerging from the campus climate debate. We just need to keep Pett’s cartoon in mind. Whether you think the speech climate crisis is a hoax or not, it is pointing us toward a better university.

Leon Sachs is an associate professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Kentucky.

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