To the Editor:
Rutgers University vice dean and professor of law Stacy Hawkins writes, “One person’s right to participate fully cannot be sacrificed to another person’s right to speak freely” (“Sometimes Diversity Trumps Academic Freedom,” The Chronicle Review, February 28). But if someone cannot speak freely on campus, does that person have the right to participate fully? While Professor Hawkins’s concession that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives can conflict with academic freedom is welcome, her essay illustrates that this is often the case because she and other DEI advocates operate with an impossible definition of “full participation” or inclusion.
Everyone on campus should be treated with “equal dignity and respect,” and they should not be subject to discrimination or harassment. But a university campus cannot guarantee a more demanding standard of “psychological safety” and “comfort and belonging” grounded in an unquestionable sense of identity. There is no clear dividing line between ideology and identity, as Professor Hawkins would like to have it. The recent case at Hamline University illustrates this, as the conflict involved a student’s ideas about what it was appropriate for her to view as a Muslim. Our racial, gender, and class identities also depend in part on ideas.
It follows that all who enter a college classroom put their “self-concept” on the line. In fact, there are whole courses that explicitly ask students to do this, and many a student has gone into a class as a Christian or a conservative and come out as an atheist or a liberal. Professor Hawkins and “DEI, inc.,” as Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder call it (“Yes, DEI Can Erode Academic Freedom. Let’s Not Pretend Otherwise”), tend to treat identity as an answer, but for many people it is a question. College campuses are full of students (and even professors) who oscillate almost daily, doubting, questioning, and wondering, “Who am I?” In fact, this is traditionally one of the reasons people go to college — to find out who they are.
Full participation at a university means being welcome to pursue ideas freely in conversation with others, regardless of one’s identity. It cannot mean curtailing some people’s free expression because they might say things that make others uncomfortable. The idea that faculty or students should be prevented from asking questions or hearing possible answers by DEI administrators acting “like judges” is quite frankly poison to the quest for self-knowledge and, therefore, the “academic enterprise.”
Paul and Karen Levy Fellow in Campus Freedom
American Council of Trustees and Alumni