Defining, Practicing, and Protecting Dialogue in Higher Education – by Dr. Carlos E. Cortés

What role can faculty play in changing the national conversation about campus dialogue? 

That’s actually two questions in one.  First, what national conversation –- or conversations — are we talking about?  Second, what role -– or roles — can faculty play?  I’ll take these questions one at a time.  But first let me tell you where I’m coming from.

No, I’m not indulging in today’s identity politics.  I’m not positioning myself by race or sex or gender identity or religion or sexual orientation?  But I am going to play the age card.  At 89, that’s one of the few cards I’ve got left.  And it’s relevant to today’s discussion because age rhymes with experience, and three aspects of my personal journey inform what I’m going to say.

First, I’m a twenty-six-year academic historian.  Second, in 1994 I took early retirement and for the past three decades have been a diversity lecturer and consultant.  This has included visiting more than 350 college campuses, but has also involved working with entities outside of academia, where conversations can be quite different.  Third, in 2018 I became an inaugural fellow of the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.  For the past five years I have been studying the half-century intersection of the diversity movement and the idea of free speech.

So when I think about national conversations, I view them not just as a scholar.  I also view them from the perspective of one who, for many decades, has rumbled, tumbled, and fumbled with dialogue in multiple circumstances.  From working with campus residential life departments to training federal government leaders to consulting with private businesses to advising on scripts for children’s television.

As a result, I don’t see one national conversation about campus dialogue.  I see multiple conversations.  Three types stand out.

  1. There are academic conversations.  Not just conversations among professors, but also conversations involving administrators, staff, and students.
  2.  There are commentariat conversations, such as those involving media pundits who comment about colleges and universities.  Those conversations are quite different in style and motivation, since they focus on reaching, capturing, and trying to influence a non-academic audience of readers and listeners.
  3. This brings us to the semi-interested observer conversations about higher education.  The day-to-day conversations of intelligent people who are part of neither academia nor the commentariat.  People who think and care and feel and talk.  People who vote, go to school board meetings, and support or oppose politicians who make decisions and public proclamations about what’s happening on college campuses.

So when professors decide that they want to change the national conversation about campus dialogue, they first need to decide which of these three conversations they want to change.  One, two, all three?  This may influence the ideas you propound, the arguments you present, and certainly the language you adopt.

Particularly over the last three decades I have been involved in all three types of conversations.  They have similarities, but also differences.  In particular, ideas, arguments, and language that seem to work within the academic echo chamber may not be as successful when addressing audience-oriented media influencers or interested listeners in the broader public.

Now I have no secret formula for influencing national conversations: academic, commentariat, or interested observer conversations.  But I will suggest four types of conversation-influencing strategies.  To make these strategies easier to remember, I’ll root them mnemonically in a single four-letter word: DARE.

D: Depolarize.

A: Amend.

R: Reframe.

E: Excite.

Dare #1. – D…depolarize
Above all else, faculty should try to depolarize conversations, including national conversations about campus dialogue.  That means swimming upstream, particularly in today’s conversational ecology.   

American society is replete with forces that contribute to and feed off polarization.  Institutional forces.  Social forces.  Governmental forces.  Political forces.  Certainly media forces, where many members of the commentariat have built and sustained careers by polarizing.  Of the three types of conversations, the commentariat conversation may be the most difficult to depolarize, because polarization often means popularity.

But let’s start with the lode star of polarization: you.  Stop for a moment and ask yourself: have I ever said, “We need to look at both sides of the issue?”  If you have, you’re probably a card-carrying member of the polarization mob, even if unintended.    

John Dewey referred to such both-sides framings as “pernicious dualisms.”  By their very dualistic nature, they polarize dialogue, encouraging people to place themselves on one side or the other.  Right or left.  Blue or red.  Conservative or progressive.  Racist or anti-racist.  Pro-trans or transphobic.  Woke or anti-woke.     

Are there issues in which there are only two sides?   Sometimes, but not all that often.  Life is too complicated for that.

So, to change conversations, avoid the both-sides trap.  When you encounter an issue, follow the rule of three.  Step back, look for, and provide a third perspective.  Frame the issue as having three or maybe more perspectives.  Not a mushy middle ground between two poles, but multiple perspectives from unexpected angles.  By undermining comfortable, knee-jerk polarities, you have taken the first step in changing conversations.

Take the current movement to ban divisive concepts from college campuses.  In the last two years, state legislatures have enacted laws and school boards have passed resolutions opposing the teaching of divisive concepts.  For example, any idea that can be linked to the concept of critical race theory.  Once a concept can be publicly packaged as divisive, it becomes a target for being barred from dialogue.

Notice the implicit dualism.  Divisive concepts are bad; non-divisive concepts are good.  Reminds me of Polonius in Hamlet who proudly announced that he was in favor of all of the good things and opposed to all of the bad things.

When it comes to campus dialogue, reject the dualism of divisive concepts.  Depolarize it.  Present concepts as difficult, challenging, or provocative.  But don’t accept the idea that such concepts need to be divisive.  Quite the contrary.  One of higher education’s goals should be to help students learn to employ constructive dialogue about challenging concepts.

DARE #2. – A… amend
To change national conversations, you need to amend thinking by nudging it.  Clarify ideas, inject nuance, and create context.  This means undermining false assumptions about the nature of campus dialogues.

This can be tricky.  When speaking to people outside of academia, resist the tendency to speak down to listeners or readers.  When you amend by nudging, do it with an air of helping a friend or a relative to better understand, not of pontificating to the supposedly uninformed.

Albert Einstein once said that you never understand a subject well until you can explain it to your grandmother.  O.K., that statement contains hints of ageism and sexism, but basically Einstein was on target.  Particularly when you venture forth into public conversations, you need to be able to explain your ideas clearly to intelligent non-specialists.  Like my grandmother.

Whenever I prepare to speak to a non-academic audience –- in fact, even when I prepared this talk –- I focus on discussing my ideas with my grandmother.  Discussing my ideas “with” her, not explaining them “to” her.  My savvy immigrant grandmother who didn’t finished elementary school.  She didn’t have a huge vocabulary, but she was smart as hell.  I always read my penultimate drafts aloud and try to imagine how they might reverberate with her, even though she departed this earth nearly four decades ago.

Most important, if you want to reach public observors or even the commentariat, don’t address them as academics.  Save your jargon and your references and your academic tropes for campus settings.  Try to convince intelligent non-specialists and let academics come along for the ride.

For example, we need to amend public thinking about the relationship of campus dialogue to two concepts: freedom of speech and academic freedom.  I examined this conundrum in my UC National Institute research project and am continuing in my book-in-progress on the historical intersection of diversity and speech.  In his book Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education, former Harvard law school professor John Palfrey, now president of the MacArthur Foundation, sought to amend thinking in the following way.  As Palfrey states, “The First Amendment is often assumed to do something that it does not: to grant an affirmative right to free expression to all people.”   

I’m involved in many public conversations about freedom of speech, and the false assumption described by Palfrey thoroughly complicates them.  The First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech” — does not guarantee free speech.  Rather it creates a wall between government and the individual.  It does not prohibit private speech-restraining activities.  As it turns out, even the wall against government restraints is porous.

In her book, Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship, by Nadine Strossen, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, begins by making a compelling argument about the difficulty of defining and identifying hate speech.  Then, in Chapter Three, she shifts her perspective and argues that hate speech codes are unnecessary.  Why?  Because, as she points out, there are already numerous legal restrictions on speech, including hate speech.  In other words, to build her case against hate speech laws, Strossen presents evidence that our current speech is not actually “free” of legal restraints.  For example, take laws against slander, libel, defamation, and invasion of privacy.

Further complicating discussions of free speech is that there is no general agreement about what it means.  In fact, it is used in at least four quite distinct ways.  You can help amend your target audience’s thinking and conversation by distinguishing those ways.

First, casual street talk.  Like, I believe in free speech.  What about my free speech?  Off-handed.  Relatively mindless.  No harm, no foul, right?  Well, not really, because people sometimes act on the mistaken idea that their speech is free and then suffer the consequences.

Second, free speech as virtue signaling.  People feel compelled to continually invoke free speech to let others know that they’re on the side of the angels.  This often creates inconsistencies when it comes to campus dialogues.  For example, some diversity trainers teach about microaggressions in order to change the way people speak.  Then they signal their virtue by adding that, heaven forbid, they aren’t suggesting that people should self-censor.  Of course they want people to self-censor.  That’s why they teach about microaggressions.

Third, the aspirational ideal of free speech as analyzed and debated by scholars.  In fact, this ideal sometimes leads to free speech supremacism: that is, free speech as the supreme value from which good inevitably emanates.  A value that must be defended at all costs, even if clashes with other important values or leads to horrendous real-world consequences.

Finally, free speech as used in discussions of the First Amendment.  Free speech supremacists support the First Amendment, but not all First Amendment defenders support absolute free speech supremacy.  They may be passionate in opposing government interference with speech.  But in situations where the First Amendment does not apply –- that is, when not prohibiting government action — many First Amendment supporters defend non-governmental speech restraints in the pursuit of such goals as equity and inclusivity.

As a former journalist and as someone who lived for nearly two years under a military dictatorship, I am delighted that the Constitution provides protections against government interference with speech.  But let’s not overstate what the First Amendment does.  To change conversations, you need to amend thinking about the First Amendment, freedom of speech, and their relationship to campus dialogue.  

That brings us to a companion dialogue-influencing factor, academic freedom: imported and codified by the American Association of University Professors in 1915.  Yet being codified by the AAUP has not translated into total agreement about what academic freedom is, even among academics.

When I started my current book project, I thought I knew what academic freedom meant.  But once I got into the academic freedom literature, I discovered how much disagreement exists, even among academic freedom specialists.  And when I began examining individual campus controversies, I found that even major pro-academic freedom organizations disagree about what they consider to be breeches of academic freedom.

Now add the embattled relationship between academic freedom and freedom of speech, including when it comes to campus dialogue.  That’s another place where academics disagree and court decisions conflict.  Is academic freedom a special dimension of freedom of speech?  Are academic freedom and freedom of speech separate but compatible ideas?  Or ideas that reinforce each other?  Or ideas that inevitably come into conflict?

Many adamant supporters of academic freedom are equally adamant opponents of the idea that college campuses, particularly campus classrooms, are free speech zones.  Some scholars argue that academic freedom is actually antithetical to free speech, because professors rightfully establish and enforce restrictive rules for classroom discourse, research papers, and examinations, all expressions of speech.

To further complicate our challenge, consider the difference between public and private institutions of higher education.  When it comes to speech restraints, private institutions are not bound by the same federal constitutional limitations as public institutions.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a passionate defender of free speech, states the following: “. . . if a private college wishes to place a particular set of moral, philosophical, or religious teachings above a commitment to free expression, it has every right to do so.”  When trying to change national conversations about dialogue, there are plenty of ideas that you can amend. But don’t stop with amending.  Take the next step.

DARE #3 – R… reframe
Depolarizing and amending can help us calm and modestly clarify national conversations.  But fundamentally changing those conversations requires a thoughtful, compelling reframing of what dialogue means, as contrasted for example, with debate, shouting, accusing, or simply expressing opinions.

Reframing is not easy, for at least three reasons.  It requires questioning your own thinking, including frames that may have become fundamental to how you view the world.  It demands the creation of frames that can convince others to rethink the way that they view dialogue, particularly campus dialogue.  And it requires coming up with effective language to communicate these ideas in a clear and compelling manner.  Not arguments you are accustomed to making in the friendly environs of confirmation bias academic echo chambers.  Rather new frames that have the potential for influencing those who may not already lean in your direction.

For example, if you want to make a public argument based on academic freedom, you’re going to need to clearly frame the idea of academic freedom and convince the public of its importance, maybe even its necessity.  Recognize that there is plenty of public cynicism about the idea of academic freedom.  Some in the broader public view academic freed as an example of professorial narcissism and self-serving privilege.  Academic freedom is not an easy public sell.

Let me give you two examples of academic reframing.  In the May 15, 2023, Inside Higher Ed, law professor Deepa Das Acevedo reframed the idea of tenure in an article entitled “In the Battle for Tenure, Words Matter.”  To effectively defend the idea of tenure, the article argues that we need to reframe it by discarding terms like “job for life” and “permanent position” — which make faculty sound like they are no more than a special interest group.  Instead reframe tenure as “just cause employment,” which is not unique to university faculty.  You might not agree with the article, but I found it to be a fine example of an effort to reframe in order to convince.

Or take a personal example.  When I began my National Center project, the diversity-speech conversation had become polarized.  Free speech was a blessed given and diversity was a monolithic opponent, sometimes labeled as political correctness or snowflake or wokeness or cancel culture.  To depolarize, I needed to reframe three ideas: free speech; academic freedom; and diversity.  In particular, I needed to undermine the concept of diversity as a monolithic juggernaut.   

To do that I deconstructed diversity, reframing it as consisting of five sometimes-conflicting threads: interculturalism; equity-and-inclusion; managerialism; critical theory; and therapeutics.  All five of these threads approach the speech environment as something that needs to change.  However, each thread has its special goals and strategies when it comes to speech modification.  I’ll briefly look at three of those threads.  You can find an analysis of all five in my article on the symposium website.

The interculturalist thread began with the goal of creating better communication among people from different world cultures.  But in the 1970’s it began to expand its horizons to include domestic differences.  When it comes to dialogue, interculturalism emphasizes the idea of voluntary speech restraint.  That is, people should learn to voluntarily modify their speech to better communicate with and show respect for those from other backgrounds.  But isn’t such voluntary action a form of self-censorship?  Sure.  That’s why I defend the idea of self-censorship, framing it the way my folks did, as common courtesy.

Parallel to interculturalism stands the idea of diversity, equity, and inclusion, a strand rooted in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s but whose buzz words did not begin to emerge sequentially until the 1970’s.  In some respects, equity and inclusion advocates draw upon the ideas and language of interculturalism, for example in the creation of cultural competence training and K-12 multicultural education.  However, inclusionists are also more concerned with issues of equity, including inequities within speech.  This might include establishing ground rules before engaging in dialogue, not trusting on voluntarism alone to create and preserve the desired ambience for successful dialogue.

But when it comes to erecting guardrails for dialogue, inclusionists are wimps compared to the therapeutic wing of the diversity movement.  This strand, too, has historical roots.  In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association officially recognized PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  The idea of trauma ultimately penetrated diversity thinking.  Some diversity trainers now conduct what they call “trauma-informed” workshops.

And not just individual trauma.  It can even be passed down as intergenerational trauma.  Moreover, those traumas can be triggered.  How?  Among other things, by speech, as in campus dialogues.  And since traumas can be triggered, professors, workshop presenters, and dialogue leaders are urged to include trigger warnings in their materials.

Or consider equity language lists.  They often do a commendable job of identifying language inequities.  But they sometimes propose cumbersome and even risible alternative wording, easy to criticize and parody.

By reframing diversity as a series of sometimes-contending strands, I try to undermine the perception of diversity as a monolith.  By illuminating how each strand addresses the issue of speech, I challenge diversity and speech as a dualistic polarity, but rather provide multiple perspectives on diversity-speech tensions.  I find that this approach works well with the interested public and even with the commentariat, as well as with academic audiences.   

This brings me to the final DARE step in changing national conversations about campus dialogues.  Beyond depolarizing, amending, and reframing, we need to excite. 

DARE #4. – E…excite 
If dialogue is a valuable part of the academic journey, maybe an essential part, we need to make it sound exciting.  You won’t change public conversation by making dialogue sound tedious, like George Bernard Shaw’s depiction of English education: a system created to train the English people to do dull tasks.

To excite, you need to address fundamental questions.  What is so important about campus dialogue?  Why should I support the kind of dialogue you are proffering?  What does such dialogue contribute to individuals and how can this contribute to our society?

To try to excite people about the role of campus dialogue, we need to show how universities can contribute to making the country a better place by helping students learn to engage more effectively in constructive dialogue.  You need to sound both excited and optimistic about the possibilities.

Let me take it one step further.  You’re not going to create excitement by championing dialogue as a bland exercise in dedicated neutrality.  The pursuit of neutrality is a fool’s errand.  CNN has been trying to stake out that position, with disastrous results in both content and viewership.  Remember the words of Mark Twain, who once asked a friend where he stood on a highly contentious issue.  The friend answered that he was neutral on that topic.  To which Twain responded, “Then whom are you neutral against?”  Vibrant dialogues are not exercises in neutrality.  Rather they should encourage students to make strong cases for their positions while simultaneously listening to others and remaining open to alternative ideas.

The National Council for the Social Studies is pursuing this goal.  In its proposed new statement of purpose, the National Council is recommending the following language: “Social Studies helps students to navigate the world.  By exploring the past, participating in the present, and looking toward the future, Social Studies prepares learners for a life-long practice of civil discourse and civic engagement in their communities and the world.”   And NCSS has developed a program to help teachers become better in teaching about concepts that have been targeted by state legislatures and school boards.

That brings me back to the dreadfully wrong-minded idea of banning divisive concepts.  The defense of campus dialogue should include the passionate argument for addressing difficult concepts, maybe potentially divisive concepts.  We should not be wishy-washy about it.  A value of campus dialogue is to help students –- maybe also faculty and staff -– better address difficult concepts without plummeting into divisiveness.  That’s a tough sell, but a necessary sell.  If you ban complex and challenging ideas, then you’ve deprived students of the opportunity to hone their capacities for dealing with these concepts without retreating into divisiveness.

At the end of the day, faculty success in influencing national conversations on campus dialogue rests on the ability to excite others through a compelling, optimistic vision of the importance of dialogue.  What are its benefits?  What is lost if students fail to develop the capacity for constructive dialogue?  What will our nation lose?   

T. S. Eliot once wrote, “We had the experience but missed the meaning.”  To change national conversations, faculty need to provide new and exciting meaning to the story of the future of higher education, in which robust and inclusive campus dialogue plays a central role.

Keynote Address (Expanded) at the American University School of Public Affairs Conference  

Dr. Carlos E. Cortés

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