In an age of conspiracy theories, information manipulation, and escalating political violence, mainstream commentators are questioning the limits of the first amendment more than ever.
We share concerns with many on campus about the increasing influence of extremist groups, from Christian Nationalists on the right to Antifa left, to name just a couple.
However, we are also concerned that institutional paranoia about these groups will lead to an overcorrection and a dangerous stigma of those who are critical of academic orthodoxies. This overcorrection will be exploited by bad-faith actors and feed the cycle of political extremism.
We are also concerned that right-wing attempts to ban critical theory will result in tightly controlled educational environments where students become intellectually stunted, less aware of their history, and more susceptible to the deceptions of nationalist influencers.
Some viewpoints are rightly stigmatized and should remain so. However, a university that aspires to create a healthy, rigorous intellectual environment must seek to facilitate freedom of speech despite the risks of doing so.
It’s not easy to find a balance between freedom and virtue. But here are some ways Pepperdine can foster a healthy intellectual environment on campus and cope with the rise and fall of political movements.
- Conduct a campus-wide survey on the status of free speech and political bias by University employees.
We’ve spoken with students who have experienced Pepperdine professors and faculty members expressing inappropriate political biases. This makes for needlessly tense learning environments, stifles conversation, stokes resentment, and creates a hierarchical dynamic in the classroom where favored views are respected and all others are disrespected or excluded from the discussion.
Importantly, these reports have come from students with a variety of political beliefs and are not limited to one particular ideology.
A campus-wide survey could either refute these claims or confirm them, and show how extensive these conditions may or may not be at Pepperdine. It would also send the message to faculty members that they are to foster respectful classroom and campus environments.
This survey could be modeled after principles outlined by the Heterodox Academy, a group of 5,000 professors, educators, and students that are committed to“enhancing the quality of research and education by promoting open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in institutions of higher learning.”
If the survey results show that students are afraid of retaliation from Pepperdine employees for beliefs in the forms of grade penalties, shaming, slander, or other inappropriate responses, the administration would have clear evidence that this is taking place, and receive better insight on how to take action to protect the rights of their students.
- Draft and Commit to a Statement Supporting Freedom of Speech on Campus.
Pepperdine should clearly outline a commitment to free speech like the University of Chicago Principles, which articulate the university’s commitment to “free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community.” If Pepperdine clearly articulated a set of principles, it would reassure faculty, staff, and students that they are free to engage and discuss ideas without fear of retaliation. The Chicago report states that “…although the University greatly values civility…concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas.”
However, Chicago’s principles still allow for the restriction of speech that “violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the University.”
The Principles also allow the University to “regulate the time, place, and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University.” These provisions leave plenty of leeway for the University to exercise discretion about who they allow on campus while still upholding a formal commitment to freedom of expression.
Pepperdine differs from the University of Chicago in one key aspect: It’s a Christian university. Pepperdine has every right to ban speakers and organizations that undermine its values. But the criteria for these restrictions must be clearly defined and universally applied.
- Set an example for healthy dialogue by hosting moderated public debates.
Pepperdine’s students need to be exposed to healthy dialogue so they can learn how to navigate disagreement, how to build consensus among diverse groups of people, and how to identify frauds, sycophants, and propagandists. Pepperdine can facilitate this by providing training to students and by hosting moderated public forum debates with reputable people to discuss the finer points of controversial issues.
It can be frightening to be exposed to the “other side”, but grappling with challenging ideas is a crucial part of developing students into leaders with well-informed convictions. Pepperdine could help prepare students for these conversations by providing training in how to recognize good and bad arguments, how to ask good questions, and how to find a proper balance between logic and emotion.
Rather than dictating to students what they should believe, Pepperdine should orient itself towards training its students to be sharp and educated discerners of truth. Developing these skills on campus will prepare them for a complicated world where the right answer isn’t always clear. Modeling healthy dialogue is an important step in this process.
The opinions of the writers we publish do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Beacon staff or advisory board. If you disagree with an author, we encourage you to submit a comment or response at pepperdinebeacon.com/contact-us/.