It’s time to recommit to civil discourse and free speech

We’re living, learning and teaching in a time when our relationship with discourse and debate is increasingly fraught. Everywhere, including in higher education, there is increased hesitancy and, sometimes, a complete inability to engage with perspectives, opinions or ideas different from our own. At the same time, a flood of disinformation causes widespread confusion and distrust. Together, these challenges undermine our future. This isn’t only higher education’s problem, but it is incumbent on us to help solve it, as it threatens our democracy, communities and well-being.

Unfettered, evidence-based intellectual inquiry is at the very heart of what we do as a university. Our highest goals are to prepare our students to thrive and to expand humanity’s knowledge of itself and our universe. And that universe is not getting any simpler. We fail our students if we don’t help them hone the skills to successfully encounter complexity, difference and thorny, complicated problems. 

Free speech, civil discourse, civil education, diversity of ideas, pluralism, engaged listening—a wealth of terminology describes these issues, but terminology should not be our focus. What is most urgent is that we actively engage in respectful discussion and learning with complex, different and diverse ideas. At the University of Denver, we are taking on this work by being explicit about what we hope to achieve. 

Most important, we want everyone in our community to feel free to express themselves—and to uphold that same freedom for others. Discussions, no matter how divided or tense, must remain respectful, evidence-based and guided by the shared goal of seeking greater understanding. In our classrooms and everywhere on campus, we seek to model the myriad skills needed for civil discourse: respect, empathy, inclusivity, kindness, and an openness to learn and engage across difference. And we provide opportunities for our students to sharpen those skills. Our biggest challenge, but one to which we are fervently committed, is to provide balance and symmetry, considering voices from all walks of life, including those with very different experiences, because doing so adds to the richness of our community and gives our students the deepest education possible. 

As we work to provide and affirm these values, we avoid pitfalls that undermine or distort our mission. By engaging in diverse ideas and perspectives, the University as an institution does not elevate or favor a particular way of thinking or ideology. We welcome respectful protests and disagreements. Indeed, they are important forms of expression. As the community encourages engagement with difference, the goal is not agreement or consensus, but learning and understanding. Disagreement is important and perhaps even essential. 

This work is rife with nuance, but that is why it is vital that we commit to it wholly. Our students need these skills if they are going to be the leaders, thinkers, doers and creators that society needs. Difference is inevitable. It’s also important. Education itself is based on encountering new information, new ideas and being powerfully changed by it. 

We have work to do, but no one is better able to do it than we are.

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