Turmoil, protest and a sea of partisan divide. That is the image most of the country gets of political discourse on college campuses nowadays.
But, as University of Richmond President Ronald Crutcher wrote in a recent op-ed to The Hechinger Report, the Sharp Viewpoint Speaker series at UR provides a successful example of civil discussion on campus. Karl Rove, a senior adviser to former President George W. Bush, was not met with unrest; nor was Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and undocumented immigrant.
However, Crutcher is overstating how successful this speaker series was in promoting useful discussion. Civility is important for intellectual discourse, but the speaker series failed to move past that and actively challenge its speakers and audience.
None of the series' events allowed for students, faculty members or community members in the audience to ask follow-up questions during the events. This is despite the fact that other major campus speeches, such as those hosted by One Book, One Richmond each year, allow for audience questions on controversial topics while maintaining peaceful and intellectual conduct.
Students from specific groups, such as the Richmond Scholars, were allowed to submit questions before the event, but members of the university administration picked the final questions and could rephrase them as they wished. This practice allows the administration to avoid subjects it may deem too touchy instead of prioritizing questions students most want to hear answers to. This also happened at last year’s forum on the Unite the Right rally and protests in Charlottesville, in a patronizing attempt to tamp down controversy.
During the Sharp speaker series event featuring Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates, the university administration didn’t even have both candidates on stage at the same time. Even if the administration wished to promote a conversational rather than debative tone, it seems as though it went out of its way to minimize any potential controversy during the event instead of advancing the series' goal of promoting “dialogue on topics crucial to the nation and global society.”
There’s also no reason why the administration should fear the controversial protests that have happened at other colleges. Last year’s protest against President Donald Trump’s travel ban drew only 25 students out of the 2,999 undergraduate students who attended our school that semester. Protest culture is so weak at UR, a Queer Literature class had to organize during its class time to protest an anti-abortion group on campus in October. Compare this with other liberal arts schools such as Vassar College, where a conservative law professor’s lecture on hate speech faced such a large uproar that he later penned an op-ed declaring the reaction a smear campaign. It’s difficult to imagine something similar happening at UR, where a culture of political apathy reigns supreme.
This isn’t to say the Sharp Viewpoint Speaker series has been entirely hopeless. Its speakers have been well-informed, and the receptions following each discussion have been successful in giving students and faculty one-on-one time with the speakers and each other. Crutcher and the university administration should continue these practices, but remember to focus primarily on the series' goal of learning rather than keeping the peace. Let audience members ask questions during the event and stop coddling our students, who have historically been cordial at these events.
Contact news writer Kay Dervishi at firstname.lastname@example.org.