A better path

August 29, 2017


Universities have a timely and important role to play in how we talk to, differ from, and move forward with each other.
By Ronald A. Crutcher, president

As conversations and debates on free speech dominate our campuses and communities, fact and reason are often relegated to understudy roles. In some instances, anger, arrogance, and certainty have camped defiantly at center stage with no signs of ceding the spotlight. We saw an extreme example of this in Charlottesville, 70 or so miles down I-64, where violence erupted between white nationalists and a group of counterprotesters.

But the college campus can pull us all in another direction, offering an ideal environment for interrogating certainties, exposing existing biases, and seeking out and learning from people of different backgrounds and perspectives as we strive for a better future for all of us.

At Richmond, faculty and students have long been taught to question received wisdom as a means of creating new knowledge and understanding. In fact, vigorous disagreement and the contest of ideas are central to higher education.

Too often in our political dialogue, and even on our campuses, we lack the capacity to disagree using the potent triad of energy, substance, and civility.

As educators, we know that students learn best not only when they’re challenged to tackle hard questions, but when they’re also taught to engage in thoughtful ways with viewpoints different from their own. Colleges and universities are uniquely positioned, and have a unique responsibility, to model substantive and civil disagreement within a larger framework of common values.

Too often in our political dialogue, and even on our campuses, we lack the capacity to disagree using the potent triad of energy, substance, and civility. Our conversations on race, immigration, economics, or politics are often restrained by a fear of offending or a certainty that there are no other valid perspectives to be entertained. Civility must not be code for quieting others’ opinions, but a call for an energetic and, sometimes, uncomfortable exchange of ideas within our richly diverse academic communities.

David Brooks of The New York Times said, in response to the violence in Charlottesville, “Uncertainty and anxiety throw you off the smug island of certainty and force you into the free waters of creativity and learning.”

One way we are planning to foster the robust exchange of ideas and perspectives in the coming year is through our Sharp Viewpoint Speakers Series. Our slate of presenters this year includes Jeffrey Herbst, former president and CEO of the Newseum, who hosted our Forum on Freedom of Expression in September; and Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates, Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie, who in October will discuss the commonwealth’s future.

We will also welcome Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas in November and Karl Rove, former senior adviser to President George W. Bush, in March to provide their perspectives on U.S. immigration policy. This topic, of great interest and relevance to our nation, was chosen by our current Richmond Scholars students.

I am hopeful that higher education will remain a potent training ground for the kind of rigorous engagement that fosters new understanding. That welcomes and values difference and harnesses the enduring traditions of academic discourse. That sees the promise in students from all backgrounds and invites them into our classrooms, research laboratories, and social spaces. That encourages more debate — not less — and supports this debate with knowledge, fact, and reason.

At a time when derision and even senseless violence threaten to replace civility as our normal mode of public discourse, no lessons we teach could be more timely or important than these.