When freshman communication major John McGee, a member of the College Republicans, went to the office of campus life to discuss setting up a club-sponsored “town hall” event, he was surprised to hear that any outside speakers brought in by the club would need to be balanced by opposing speakers.
“The rule that was cited was that if we’re going to get a speaker from off-campus, we need to ensure that more than one side is represented. So if we get a conservative speaker, that means we definitely need to have the liberal viewpoint also represented,” McGee said.
That’s because of a section in the club manual, the official policy handbook for all club activities, stating the criteria Saint Vincent uses to evaluate off-campus speakers invited by clubs.
“Saint Vincent College has the final right of approval for speakers. Factors that will be considered include: Opportunity for opposing views; Speaker’s past public statements; Proximity to elections; and Consistency with the SVC Mission Statement,” the manual says.
While McGee elected to go with the student speakers, the pro-life club recently invited Dorinda Bordlee, a lawyer with the conservative Bioethics Defense Fund. While Bordlee’s talk was later canceled due to the death of one of one of the speaker’s friends, junior mathematics major Benjamin Watt, the club’s former co-president, doesn’t remember being asked to provide an opposing view.
He wondered whether the clause might apply mainly to political speakers.
“Say that they had a political candidate, I think that would be the most appropriate situation to enforce that,” Watt said.
He pointed out that the college invited both Michael Steele and Donna Brazile to speak together last year.
Watt is correct, explained Deanna Wicks, associate director of campus life.
“We use it mostly politically, because in other things there aren’t often opposing views. It’s mostly to make sure that both views are being presented fairly,” she said.
Campus life doesn’t make final decisions on speakers, Wicks said; instead, it’s her job to research speakers and send the information to the college to ensure that a speaker is in compliance with Saint Vincent’s mission.
Dr. George Leiner, professor of philosophy, agrees that presenting both sides of difficult controversies is the cornerstone of academic dialogue.
“In the very broadest sense, I think that institutions of higher learning are one of the places in the culture where we have the opportunity to address the most difficult, important, sometimes very divisive issues in the culture. And this is the place where we have a shot at doing it in a productive fashion, so that we can have the opportunity to speak frankly, to address each other as mature, rational adults,” he said.
Sometimes, though, Saint Vincent doesn’t make the most of that opportunity, Leiner suggested.
“If we start from a position that we will only allow those views to be expressed that are in agreement with the specific set of values that the institution may hold. . . then we run the very great risk of isolating ourselves from the broader culture. . . . So I think we ought to be broader in terms of the representatives that we bring on to campus, in terms of the speakers that we have here,” he said.
That doesn’t mean inviting just anyone, Leiner cautioned, especially in an institution that does happen to be guided by Benedictine values; but the campus community ought to make a concerted effort to ensure that respectful discussions of opposing views are available. He pointed to an event in 1971 in which the president of the American Communist Party spoke on campus as an example.
But McGee fears that the club speaker policy tends to undermine Leiner’s vision of a college rather than strengthen it. He thinks the rule places an additional burden on clubs.
“It would definitely be more complicated because that’s twice as much planning and setting up with the speaker,” he said.
He thinks this is particularly problematic when applied to political issues because it sends the message that controversial speakers are unwelcome. Those kinds of speakers, he thinks, are useful in facilitating academic discourse.
“When any speaker goes about giving a lecture, the main idea is to persuade. And you usually can’t persuade by just validating,” McGee said.
“If you limit the speaker by a subjective opinion that they’re too controversial or too provocative, that would definitely harm the diversity of thought.”
Campus Life does encourage collaboration between clubs and tries to work with them to make the task of balancing speakers easier, Wicks said.
“Whenever clubs come up with ideas we usually help them through whatever it is as much as we can. We very much encourage collaboration with others. . . . it’s a good way for students to learn how to work together anyway,” she said.
Watt, McGee, and Leiner all agreed that students do have a responsibility to promote diverse views, and that the issue shouldn’t be left only to the faculty and administration.
Watt would like to hear more speakers with opposing viewpoints, and likes the idea of debates. But he isn’t sure whether the language in the club manual is the right solution.
“I think it’s a good idea for a club to consider having an alternate viewpoint. I think a debate can be a good model for a more controversial subject,” he said. He just doesn’t think it should be mandated.
Photo: SVC Flickr