Nineteen: Civil Discourse at DU
Dear DU community members,
It’s time to have an earnest conversation about discourse. We all struggle with challenging discourse—with listening across difference and encountering new or opposing ideas. But, as an educational institution, this is at the heart of what we do, and it is our obligation to engage, not disengage.
Civil discourse is critical to a well-functioning democracy. It leads to deeper understanding—of people, ideas, histories, contexts, implications, and so much more. And it requires a set of skills we must model for and foster in our students. During their time at DU and well beyond, the ability to encounter novelty, conflict and complexity, think critically, and learn or reconsider will help our students build rich lives of purpose and serve the public good. This is so integral to the 4D Experience. But, for me, the most convincing argument for civil discourse at universities is that our ability to exercise intellectual integrity and seek truth is threatened without it.
Free expression is a guiding American freedom—and a principle through which the ideas, vision and protests of minoritized voices have been protected. Through its policy, DU is a free expression university. But “free expression” is itself imperfect; it forces us to ask where lines are drawn between expression made in good faith and hate speech, between presenting new viewpoints and spreading misinformation. These ambiguities exist here at DU and everywhere. Encouraging our students to think about this, to ask questions about why and when and where—this is how they build the critical thinking skills we are committed to facilitating.
Our academic rigor, our endless quest for knowledge and understanding, our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion—it’s these traits that will guide us as we strive toward building a community and culture which doesn’t approach difference, opposition and controversy with fear or rejection, but with curiosity, respect and empathy. This matters. Shouting matches, table pounding, and divisive conversations that seek to separate us from one another are enormous roadblocks standing in the way of a better world. It’s integral that our students leave this campus able to do better. Able to be better.
That is not to say there won’t be discomfort; discomfort is often a necessary and unavoidable part of encountering difference. So how do we get there? First, let’s define for ourselves our pragmatic rules of engagement for civil discourse. Here, we are not starting from scratch. DU has a strong free expression policy, developed by the faculty and approved by the Board. This policy and how we insist on treating one another are our guideposts. We can commit to holding conversations across difference. We can require objective truth, facts and respect. Our rules of engagement are not meant to shelter us but to ensure all parties are approaching the conversation with a shared commitment to honesty and, quite frankly, empathy. This need not conflict with our commitment to free expression.
It is my hope that the University of Denver will one day be known as a community enthusiastically engaged with the world, excited to test our own ideas, perspectives and biases. It is my hope that every student leaves this campus with a deep knowledge of the history of free speech, academic freedom and civil discourse and how they are inextricably bound to the civil rights movement and other calls for inclusion and justice. And it is my hope that, at DU, our discussions, no matter how tense or divided, will remain respectful, evidence-based, and guided by the shared goal of seeking greater understanding—not necessarily agreement or consensus. Through this work, we can all engage more deeply with one another and gain emotional and intellectual access to each other’s humanity.
The world only grows more divided. The time is now. So, let’s begin.
- Are there topics, ideas or perspectives you would like to see the DU community engage with? You can submit suggestions to me at email@example.com to help guide programming at a future University-wide symposium on civil discourse, academic freedom and free expression.
- Would you like to engage with others on this topic? Please email your interest to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.