Many mistakes were made by many people at Hamline University in how it handled a professor’s classroom display of a painting a student objected to on religious grounds. I am not here to assess blame but to offer a first draft of lessons to be learned.
Hamline, like other colleges, is a corporation that must worry about its bottom line and reputation just like any other business. Colleges must also navigate free speech, academic freedom, and respect for student diversity and sensibilities.
Where colleges err is in thinking that there is a conflict among these goals.
Universities are businesses with brands, products, customers, and workers. They have budgets to meet. They need diversified revenue streams to stay solvent. They offer education along with a package of other services to student-customers who select the products that best serve their preferences. Schools compete against one another for a declining pool of applicants who increasingly question the value and price of a college education.
This is the nasty and ugly truth of higher education. No one wants to admit it but that is reality.
Somewhere along the way higher education has forgotten that to be viable as a business it has to stick to its brand and mission. This is when mistakes are made.
Mistake No. 1
The first mistake is forgetting that higher education is supposed to be about the discovery of truth and knowledge.
Colleges and universities are supposed to be neutral when it comes to viewpoints expressed. They’re supposed to be about challenging biases and developing minds by exposing students to a diversity of perspectives and viewpoints. Higher learning is supposed to be about self-discovery where no one prescribes orthodoxy. Higher education is supposed to be about the marketplace of ideas. This is the brand and mission of higher education.
Mistake No. 2
The second mistake colleges make is failing to recognize that the classroom is different from the dorm room.
The academic mission of a school is to challenge biases in the classroom and in the educational climate it provides. Its purpose is to get students to realize that not everyone thinks the same as they or shares their world view. Schools can only do that by offering competing and often conflicting perspectives. This education process is often unsettling and uncomfortable.
Yet this is different from tolerating or preaching hate. It is far different to discuss unsettling ideas in the classroom than to allow hateful acts on campus. Schools should ensure campuses are free from discrimination much in the same way corporations and businesses should be free from it too. But like a well-run business, colleges must avoid groupthink and encourage creativity.
Mistake No. 3
A third mistake is that respect for real diversity – which is more than what our skin color, gender, religion or sexual orientation is – is a respect for a diversity of thought. It is recognizing that not all of us think the same way or hold the same beliefs. It is, as Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, recognizing that we should be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character.
If higher education is to promote diversity, it does that best by exposing students in the classroom to contrasting ideas, professors and speakers who come to campus. There is no conflict between academic freedom, free speech, and diversity. Diversity is only possible when professors, speakers, and other students are given the chance to express themselves. Prescribe orthodoxy and no one is free.
Mistake No. 4
A fourth mistake is weighing in on matters of religious truth, especially of a different faith. Granted, many schools have a religious affiliation and if they chose to they could define a party line. But few do that anymore. They have learned the lesson of history that picking and choosing religious sides is dangerous and often enough everybody loses. Universities, as they face competition for students and donors, may feel the need to cater to specific religious views. Even if a school has a religious mission and values it wishes to impart, it does a disservice to students by prescribing what can be taught in the classroom.
My faith is only stronger if I can defend it against opposing ideas. My religious views are mine and not others’, and even if I choose not to expose myself to contrary viewpoints this should not serve as a veto for others. Squashing ideas in the classroom does little to promote diversity but instead reinforces hate and discrimination.
Wall Street is littered with the wrecks of businesses and CEOs who strayed from their core missions and forgot that once a reputation is damaged is it very difficult to recover it. Higher education is a business. But as a business it succeeds only if it does well what it is supposed to do. Forgetting this is perhaps the most critical mistake a college can make.
David Schultz is a professor at Hamline University in the departments of political science, legal studies and environmental studies.
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