Challenging Intolerance

Helmick CommonsHow disagreements and difficulties instill civility on campus

By Elizabeth Ford Kozor, JO’07, AS’07

Early on a sunny Saturday morning in April 2010, hundreds of Drake students, faculty, and staff assembled on the lawn in front of Old Main. Many held signs promoting love and tolerance; others sang “All You Need Is Love.”

Organized by students, the gathering was a peaceful response to the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC), which had collected that morning behind police barricades in the grassy knoll between the First Christian Church and 26th Street. WBC has gained notoriety in recent years for picketing at the funerals of American soldiers and productions of The Laramie Project. The group was on campus to protest a Drake Law School symposium on same-sex marriage.

“So many people who wrote on the wall of our Facebook event expressed how important it was to not stoop to their level,” says Alex Masica, jo’12, as’12, one of the organizers of the counterprotest. “We wanted to show that people can fight hateful speech and hateful lifestyles with love and support, and I think we did a great job of that.”

In an email to campus after the event, Drake President David Maxwell called the assembly a “moment of special pride” for him as the University’s president.

“No one yelled anything negative; no one did anything inappropriate,” Maxwell says. “They were elegant, absolutely elegant, in demonstrating who we are and, by implication, who the Westboro Baptist Church is not.”

Dedicated to dialogue

The counterprotest held by the Drake community reflected elements of Drake’s Statement of Principles, which encourages “civil debate and discussion of divergent perspectives” and articulates Drake’s “abhorrence of statements that demean, denigrate, humiliate, or express hatred.” Drake did not bar the WBC from campus; however, the Drake community sent a strong message that it did not agree with the group’s beliefs.

This commitment to civility outlined in the Statement of Principles is critical for the type of learning environment Drake creates for its students; it’s also fundamental to productive academic inquiry.

“The way in which you find better truths is through the exchange of ideas and challenging each other’s ideas,” Maxwell says. “If you are not respectful of what other people think, if you do not respect other people and their right to think differently than you—not just respect it but value it—you won’t reach a higher truth, which is at the heart of an academic enterprise. Civility is essential to that.”

In an age of reality TV shows, mudslinging political ads, anonymous internet forums, and screaming on-air pundits, Drake’s commitment to civil discourse and discussion has become even more important.

Maxwell believes the University has a responsibility to demonstrate the type of civil behavior it expects from its students. This happens through campus events, such as the Constitutional Law Symposium, which invites leading experts to Drake Law School to discuss hot-button issues
in a structured debate.

Faculty members also impart lessons of civility in the classroom, where they work to create safe spaces that allow students to respectfully challenge each other and their own beliefs to grow intellectually.

Model behavior

Debra DeLaet, department chair and professor of politics and international relations, believes it is important for her to set the tone for classroom discussions early in the semester. She encourages debate but insists it be respectful and based on facts.

“I don’t find it hard to get students on board,” she says. “If I as the faculty person come committed to dialogue, if I can communicate early on that I want them to say what they really think, that it is OK for us to disagree, that they won’t get chastised for disagreeing with me, then I think they actually want to have those types of conversations.”

To teach of the value of fact-based dialogue, in her international law course DeLaet assigns law briefs on controversial issues, such as the status of Palestine as an independent state or the legality of the United States’ interrogation and detention policies during the war on terror. Each student is required to research and represent the perspectives of an involved party, regardless of the student’s personal beliefs.

“The great thing about this is that they detach themselves from their point of view,” she says. “They don’t necessarily change their own point of view, but they can usually concede there are good points in the opposing arguments.”

Ideally, the lessons learned about civil discourse will spill out of the classroom and influence the conversations students are having in campus organizations, the workplace, and beyond.

“My personal belief is that you can’t be a truly engaged citizen if you don’t know how to engage in civil disagreements,” DeLaet says. “Sometimes I hear this rhetoric of civility that says civility means we can’t disagree, that you can’t get anything done if you express your opinion strongly. If students want to be effective in their communities, learning to work through disagreements is critical.”

Civility on trial

These lessons are occasionally tested on campus, and Drake students are asked to respond to an uncivil incident in a civil manner. Last spring, a group of black students was walking along the Painted Street, when, from a window in Jewett Hall, another student shouted at them, “Get off our campus. We don’t want you on our campus …”

Reports of the incident ignited new conversations on campus—about racism, its prevalence on Drake’s campus, and the need for increased cultural understanding.

“What was striking about this incident was it was much more overt,” says Jennifer Perrine, associate professor of English. “In my six years here, I have had many students tell me about subtle or covert racism, but this was the first time I had heard of something that could not be rationalized as someone not understanding they were being inappropriate.”

With William Hatchet, new student academic facilitator, Perrine co-authored a letter to The Times-Delphic, which encouraged students and faculty to engage in productive conversations about racism and to sign a petition against such beliefs and behavior.

“We recognize this is not an isolated incident but part of a broader campus culture that pretends racism no longer exists,” they wrote. “This event demonstrates that we can no longer ignore the presence of racism on our campus and the members of the Drake community need to engage in more direct, cross-cultural dialogue.”

Nearly 550 students, faculty, and staff signed the petition, but what was most encouraging about the response was the way students came together to tackle the issue and, much like in the case of the Westboro Baptist Church counterprotest, take a stand against intolerance.

More than 100 students, faculty, and staff attended a Student Senate meeting after the event took place. What resulted was a sincere and open conversation about race and acceptance on the Drake campus.

“The responses I saw were positive; students were trying to figure out why this happened and facilitate understanding,” says Perrine. “Instead of speaking from a place of anger, they spoke about the importance of frank conversations about race on campus. Where they had animosity before, there was now a possibility for groups to work together.”

Perrine says although the dialogue was productive, the issue is far from resolved. She is a member of the Working Group for the Infusion of Multicultural and Global Understanding. The committee provides a way for individuals to discuss ideas and issues of diversity on Drake’s campus. The group has numerous events planned for the academic year, including a public display of submitted works of art that will be representative of multiculturalism.

These events are just one way to advance the conversation about diversity on campus. They, along with the community’s thoughtful response to this particular incident, demonstrate Drake’s deep commitment to civility and tolerance.

“It shows Drake is invested in figuring these things out, that our concern for these issues is part of who we are,” Perrine says.

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