UMKC sponsored an event Tuesday night featuring a panel of experts discussing the role the university plays in fostering civil discourse.
The discussion was one of two events following the official investiture of Chancellor Mauli Agrawal. These two events made up “UMKC: A Community of Excellence,” which the university organized to celebrate “the special relationship between UMKC and the Kansas City community,” according to the official announcement.
The nonprofit and nonpartisan organization, American Public Square, hosted the event. It develops programs that feature expert panelists with different views participating in civil discussions about controversial topics.
UMKC professor and former U.S. Ambassador to Portugal, Allan J. Kats, moderated the conversation of the four expert panelists.
The main topic of discussion was civil discourse and differences in opinion and ideological censorship within colleges and universities across the United States.
“This is a really timely topic,” said Agrawal in his opening statement. “One of the greatest freedoms that we have in this nation is freedom of speech. And if we have differences of opinion, how do we work with each other in a constructive fashion so that it’s not divisive, and we don’t end up dividing each other or hating each other?”
Randall Hanna, dean of Florida State University Panama City and College of Applied Studies, said the importance of engaging in your community is not only participating, but participating in a civil manner.
“That needs to be part of basic education that all our students receive,” said Hanna.
Margaret Talev, senior White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, stated, “I think for the most part, universities do a phenomenal job at fostering really interesting discussions on a variety of topics with all sorts of different points of view, […] I think the president has understood that there is a concern within his base that many universities are too liberal, and the conservative viewpoint isn’t heard enough.”
Talev, who is also the former president of the White House Correspondents’ Association and the Washington Press Club Foundation, observed that when the free speech movement on college campuses began, it was coming from the left (those who supported civil rights and were against the Vietnam War). But the pendulum has swung, and now, a majority of people pressing for more free speech on college campuses are from the right.
Michael Q. McShane, director of National Research at EdChoice, stated his belief that “a lot of these universities have become ideologically homogeneous over time.”
“So, what I worry about in those cases is not so much that people are repressed, but the sort of more subtle, more insidious problem where certain questions don’t get asked or certain topics don’t get discussed,” said McShane. “I think it happens more in classrooms where you have students who are from different perspectives that may be unwilling to share those because they are worried they might be, in some cases, reported to campus authorities for having committed some sort of biased incident for sharing some of the beliefs that they have.
The panelists discussed the recent trend of controversial speakers being disinvited from and/or hotly protested at colleges and universities.
“Under the first amendment, if students invite a speaker that is inciting violence and harm to others, they have to be able to come,” stated Hanna. “If you rent your space out to the public, you have to treat everybody equally.”
Hanna says there are many people in this country who believe college and university campuses are not open to public discourse.
“Whether they are or whether they are not, they believe it,” Hanna said.
Hanna added that he believes the public university is a meeting place and implied that all people and ideas should be welcome. However, Talev noted that there is a time and place for incivility, as well.
“Sometimes I think uncivil discourse is necessary,” Talev stated. “Sometimes you have to raise your voice a little. Sometimes you have to show numbers. Sometimes smiling and nodding and saying ‘how do you feel about it?’ isn’t going to get it done.”
These discussions come at an interesting time for UMKC.
Just last month, the Young Americans For Freedom student group sparked controversy after tabling in Miller Nichols Library with a sign that read, “Hate speech is free speech.”
The group and university administration received strong backlash from many people who felt the sign was in poor taste and believed the university should have stepped in to remove it. However, UMKC administration maintained its position that the students were well within their rights of free speech.
Towards the end of the panel discussion, McShane stated, “It is incumbent upon us to believe in civility, to not use it as a cudgel to silence people when they are inconvenient.”