Diversity & Speech Part 13: Education and Equity – by Carlos E. Cortés

Education, particularly higher education, has become ground zero for the clash of inclusive diversity and robust speech.  Many administrators and professors proclaim their support of both.  So do I.  Yes, they can co-exist.  But there will be clashes, inevitably.  Which means decisions, tough decisions, will have to be made.

In the wake of the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd, those decisions became more complex and more contentious.  College leaders throughout the country proclaimed their horror about that Minneapolis event and vowed that their campuses would not only continue to support diversity, equity, and inclusion, but would also assert leadership in anti-racism.

Such anti-racist proclamations are needed.  But what does that mean when it comes to action?  What should college leaders do if members of their campus communities use their robust speech to express anti-equity ideas, particularly ones that are deemed to be racist?

In the aftermath of Floyd’s death, college leaders took varying actions when encountering such statements.  Sometimes those actions targeted faculty, staff, students, and administrators.  In other cases they targeted prospective students.

For example, a criminal justice professor at Utah’s  Weber State University tweeted that he would have driven a car into a crowd of protesters.  The university placed him on administrative leave and indicated that they were investigating his tweets.  The professor left his position, saying he had been forced to resign, which the university denies.    

At the University of California, Los Angeles, some students called for the termination of an accounting professor for his arguably cavalier response to student requests for special accommodations due to trauma from current events.   Similar protests erupted at the University of Central Florida following a professor’s provocative tweet concerning African American students and “systematic racism.”

Then there were student issues.  Cincinnati’s Xavier University rescinded the admissions offer and track scholarship of a student who tweeted “In America you are allowed to be racist as long as you don’t act on it.”  Marquette University acted similarly when it cancelled the admission of an incoming student and lacrosse player who posted a comparison of Police Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck with players kneeling in protest against racial injustice during the National Anthem.

Both of these schools are private Catholic institutions.  As such, they are not legally bound by the First Amendment’s prohibition against government infringement on freedom of speech.  But public universities are acting, too, in the face of what they deem to be student racist speech.  These include the University of Delaware, Temple University, and even the U.S. Naval Academy, which rescinded one student’s offer of admission and considered disciplinary action against a currently-enrolled student.

I am not an attorney, so I will take a bye on offering a legal opinion.  But I will comment on the values issues involved.  For me, two stand out.

First, values of diversity, equity, and inclusion have more than gained a foothold in higher education.  Particularly in the last decade they have become preeminent values in most such institutions.  For that reason, diversity values will increasingly come into conflict with the values of supposedly “free” speech and even academic freedom.

Second are competing human values.  Students should be able to engage actively in the robust exchange of ideas.  But they also should be able to participate in college life without being made to feel marginalized, excluded, or threatened because of their group identities.  This creates an inevitable tension when speech by some creates an atmosphere of threat and marginalization for others.

Professors, particularly veteran professors, ought to have a nuanced understanding of the power of their words to foster a sense of marginalization.  They have lesser excuse for inequitable speech actions.  But what about students, particularly students just completing high school?

I can fully understand – sometimes even support – administrative actions punishing would-be-students for their ill-chosen words. After all, colleges have values. Today’s colleges tend to be up-front about the central value of creating and maintaining campuses based on the ideas of inclusivity and equity. In defense of those values, punitive actions seem justified (whether or not they are legal is another matter).

If I only wanted to signal my personal virtue to other diversity advocates, I would take the safe route by unreservedly applauding Xavier, Marquette, and other campuses for denying admission to students who post ill-chosen, arguably racist statements. But while I do applaud their taking some action, part of me feels queasy about their going so far as to terminate admission.

You see, I have six grandchildren — three currently in college – and one great-grandchild-to-be in October. My wife and I try to guide them toward clear thinking, concern for others, thoughtful action, and a belief in social justice. We also continually caution them to be careful about what they post online. But they aren’t perfect.

Needless to say, neither am I. I did dumb things in high school, probably even dumber things in college, and maybe am still doing them. So I can’t help asking myself: what would my position be if one of my grandchildren had college admission revoked for posting an ill-conceived statement?

So while I espouse diversity values in higher education and even applaud the fact that administrators are taking stronger stands when it comes to equity issues, I still feel sympathy for those loose-lipped young people who squander opportunities with their intemperate language and still-inchoate ideas (I hope). I also hope that they learn the “right” lessons from their mistakes and move on to become fine citizens who will contribute to a more inclusive future.

Maybe most important, I hope that the pursuit of equity becomes a more significant value for everyone. If that happens, then equity would become more of an ideal to strive for and less of a rod for punishing miscreants.

Dr. Carlos E. Cortés

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