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Admin urges students to speak freely

By Zach Cihlar

Section: Features

October 7, 2016

This article is part of a Features investigation into the diversity of political ideas at Brandeis.

“I think in the past year or two, most college campuses have become far more politicized,” said President Ron Liebowitz during an interview with The Brandeis Hoot.

As an experienced university president, Liebowitz has witnessed firsthand the change in student body demographics and the shifting political culture within the college and university setting. He served 11 years in the position at Middlebury College in Vermont before starting the same position at Brandeis in July of this year.

Even though Liebowitz is relatively new to the political dynamic of Brandeis’ student body, the large presence of individuals who identify as left-leaning on the political spectrum does not surprise him. In fact, he said, college and university campus cultures generally lean toward being liberal.

As president of Middlebury, Liebowitz noticed a greater engagement of students in political issues in recent years, although he admitted that at Middlebury, this engagement wasn’t as exaggerated as it is at Brandeis. The increased politicization of college campuses affects the format of political debate by creating an atmosphere of polarization, where discomfort and confrontation can arise over dissenting opinions. Therefore, Liebowitz concluded that he was not greatly surprised by the data gathered from The Hoot’s poll quantifying students’ general hesitation to express their political views.

Though unsurprised, Liebowitz admitted the data proved a little disappointing. The goal of colleges and universities across the nation, he explained, is to build diversity within the student body so that students can experience, interact with and challenge different opinions in order to formulate and reshape their own. Uniformity of opinions and hesitancy to share dissent harm the achievement of this educative goal. “That’s what is a little bit disappointing about these polls,” he admitted. “If so many are holding back, then that’s not fulfilling the mission.”

Many universities have faced similar halts in political discourse, according to Liebowitz.

Various colleges and universities across the nation have taken up initiatives to respond to and combat the increasingly restrictive climate of discussion in order to pursue expanded communication and a greater, more beneficial form of debate. Most notably, the University of Chicago rejected the “safe space” platform of discussion as part of their free speech initiative, inviting students to openly discuss thoughts and issues without the hesitancy of causing discomfort, offense or confrontation to another student, according to the University of Chicago’s email to the student body.

The general trend is that other universities are becoming aware of what Liebowitz called the “shortcomings in how discourse is shaped” as well. Many, in fact, have responded to these shortcomings in the form of task forces designed to address issues with dialogue.

Liebowitz and the administration have likewise looked into a responsive task force, which intends to look into the umbrella idea of free speech in the context of a campus setting. The task force would host discussion between the administration, faculty, staff and students and seek to implement new plans intended “to really enhance the quality of debate and discussion for the purposes of education.”

“More is better,” Liebowitz said of dialogue in the student body and the mission of the task force. “I think holding back on speech is the antithesis, really, of what liberal arts education is all about. So therefore, hopefully there will be a lot of discussion as to how far one goes to allow free speech.”

“[We] need to continue developing ways for us to communicate with each other and to support open intellectual discourse on all these topics,” Dean of Students Jamele Adams said in an email to The Hoot.

Overcoming the general hesitancy to express political views also begins at the individual level. Students should learn and build resilience to discomfort and offense in political conversations, said Leibowitz. The administration wants to achieve an environment where the expression of a minority opinion is valuable to all the parties involved, both dissenting and concurring. The environment created by this practiced resilience allows for potentially offensive comments to be accepted “in stride as part of the education” of both the listener and the speaker, according to Liebowitz.

Liebowitz also noted that frequently offensive comments arise due to ignorance rather than malice, which explains the importance of debate and discussion in informing students of potentially offensive language and topics. Yet the administration does not condone hate speech, and Liebowitz said that in conversation it should be called on and reproached.

Nevertheless, the individual environment fostered by students, as detailed by Liebowitz, requires steadfast debaters who remain unshaken by factually based dissenting opinions and who will inform one another about reality-based opinions, Liebowitz said.

Overall, Liebowitz suggests, “I don’t think silencing individuals is the way to go. I think we have to build an environment where people are free to speak and build their own resilience.” He continued, “I think students need not be protected as much as some would want to be protected. It tarnishes and erases the overall depth and quality of an education one can receive.”

“I find it unfortunate that we speak less and less face to face as people, and it seems evident that comfort in expressing ourselves digitally is further limited by the threat of online ridicule for ‘saying’ something that might be considered hostile,” Adams added.

The goal of all these responses, according to Liebowitz, is to achieve a political tone that is “as open as possible.” Brandeis’ president endeavors for open debate where every participant understands the context of the opposing political beliefs and builds arguments based on solid facts that support their own view. Qualitative debate such as fact-based arguments are crucial to achieving an educational environment of political discussion. In other words, the administration desires debate that conducts speech according to the purposes of the university.

Liebowitz mentioned that dealing with dissenting or clashing political opinions is a skill required for the world after college. Students should learn to refute challenges to their opinions, challenge the opinions of others and also learn how to push through the discomfort that contrasting political views sometimes generates. Students acquire these skills through communication available during college. “The whole idea of spending four years at a place like this with smart people is to engage ideas and challenge one’s own thinking,” Liebowitz said.

In this way, access to uninhibited discussion prepares students for interactions of any kind outside of Brandeis, where, demographically speaking, political views are less uniform than in a campus setting like Brandeis.

With the current state of politics during this unconventional election year, there is even more extreme polarization between supporters of each candidate both in the greater voting public and in the campus setting. Because of this, it is an important year for expanded intellectual discussion on politics, mentioned Liebowitz.

“The political season, with all of its challenges on the national stage, provides ample ingredients for such conversations to happen. Hopefully we will continue to utilize these moments as opportunities to exemplify what it might sound like to have spaces where dialogue—difficult, complex or compounded—can occur safely,” Adams stated.

“Some of these spaces have presented themselves through programming, ‘teach-ins’ and intimate discussion forums. No single one of us is more important than all of us; therefore we must be intentional in our desire to shape our house, while remaining committed to our mission and vision,” said Adams.

Read more about diversity of ideas:

Political poll reveals student reluctance to speak
Diversity of ideas poll results: students respond

Be sure to check out next week’s edition of The Hoot for further analysis.

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