By Grace Gottschling
When Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-winged political commentator, attempted to speak at the University of California, Berkeley in 2017, a riot broke out. A local Antifa group, or anti-fascist militant group, accelerated the situation and caused more than $100,000 worth of damage with only one arrest being made, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Later that year, lawyer and conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro was invited to speak at UC Berkeley. Given the violence and rioting that occurred earlier in the year, concrete barriers and metal detectors were put in place. San Francisco police officers were given special permission by the Berkeley City Council to use pepper spray, which had been banned in the city for 20 years, and roughly $600,000 was spent on security, according to CNN’s coverage of the event.
The U.S. has recently been experiencing more and more bouts of thought policing and the labeling of what some would call “controversial” language as hate speech. In colleges specifically, there has been a number of riots and other non-civil disruptions of free speech events similar to what occurred at UC Berkeley.
At colleges, there is debate over whether students have access to the type of environment conducive to exploring opinions and philosophies of all kinds without being unjustly targeted or mistreated for sharing their voices.
Is a campus that prides itself on diversity and inclusion, such as the College, taking the time to ask students about how they feel about erring opinions? How do faculty respond to those opinions offered when relevant to class discussion? These elements are valid when evaluating the quality of an institution and how they regard their students from all backgrounds.
After surveying 30 students — all of whom belonged to a variety of self-identified ideological backgrounds — 60 percent identified as conservative, 30 percent identified as liberal and 10 percent identified as “other.” Furthermore, 60 percent of students feel like the majority of their professors have viewpoints that oppose their own.
“Faculty sometimes characterize the student body as politically apathetic, but I think that TCNJ students are less apathetic than polite and averse to open conflict,” said professor Glenn Steinberg, chair of the English Department. “Being a quiet, polite community where people feel safe and respected is a good thing. Perhaps our nation at large could learn a thing or two about civil discourse from TCNJ.”
Given the recently charged political climate, many professors at the College are making conscious efforts to remain as nonpartisan and inclusive as possible.
Although 76.7 percent of surveyed students claimed that they felt intimidated to speak in class if they perceived their opinion to be in the minority, only 16.7 percent of surveyed students who did speak out in class with a minority opinion felt like they had been unjustly shut down for speaking up.
“My job as a faculty member is not to convert my students to a particular position but to make sure that they hold those positions for really, really good reasons and that they have thought through all the consequences of those positions,” said Felicia Steele, a linguistics professor at the College.
Steele believes that students must be challenged on their positions in order to hold them properly, and that can mean throwing comfort out the window.
“Students shouldn’t be comfortable in their classes,” she said. “They should have a nagging and painful sensation that they are being pushed to become more than they already are. So safety and comfort are entirely different.”
When students do feel comfortable voicing their opinions, they are often received positively.
“As a left-leaning person, I’m part of the political majority on campus, but whenever I do voice opinions that might warrant the term ‘controversial,’ I am never met with anything other than respect from my professors and fellow students,” said James Loewen, a senior English major. “Professors have disagreed with me before, but never in such a way as to discredit or belittle my opinions.”
Loewen said that he even felt that when he does disagree with his professors, they respect his opinions and do not try to insult him.
“I have noticed that professors like it when you engage with them in real discussion,” he said. “I’m not saying they love when students tell them they’re wrong, but different opinions help to facilitate better discussions.”
Some students, however, feel as though voicing opinions that differ from those of their professor may have a negative impact on their performance in class.
“If a professor expresses a certain opinion I tend to write my papers to fit that professor’s viewpoints,” said Sebastian Czerwinski, a sophomore management major. “I feel as though I get graded higher when I do that, as opposed to classmates who received lower grades but expressed their own opinion.”
According to these students, the general atmosphere on campus can vary depending on who you are speaking with. However, even when disagreements arise, Dylan Novak, a freshman engineering major, said they never escalate past the point of discomfort.
“Almost everybody I will talk to will disagree with what I have to say, which is fine,” Novak said. “They’re not going out of their way to suppress me. Even people who disagree with me very strongly are at least still my friends.”
All institutions of education are designed to help facilitate and prepare students to join the workforce in a variety of fields.
Businesses identify thought diversity as playing a crucial role in the workplace. According to a 2013 report published by professional services firm Deloitte Consulting, cultivating “diversity of thought” at a business can boost innovation and creative problem-solving.
Additionally, business publications like Forbes and Business Insider have acknowledged that having numerous voices with diverse backgrounds and ways of thinking improves the way a business is run.
“Diversity of thought should be our single most powerful competitive advantage in our workgroups and organizational teams,” Forbes contributor Glenn Llopis wrote in a 2016 article. “We need to change the conversation and get beyond diversity. What we need to do is embrace diversity of thought.”
If thought diversity is fostered in the classroom and in academia, students will not only be able to successfully communicate a variety of opinions while in college, but will be valued assets to employers.