Constructive Irreverence in Action

COLUMBIA, MO - NOVEMBER 9: Members of the Concerned Student 1950 movement speak to the crowd of students on the campus of Uni
COLUMBIA, MO - NOVEMBER 9: Members of the Concerned Student 1950 movement speak to the crowd of students on the campus of University of Missouri - Columbia on November 9, 2015 in Columbia, Missouri. Students celebrate the resignation of University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe amid allegations of racism. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

On a September afternoon more than three years ago, I gave my first speech to the assembled Brown University community at our Opening Convocation. The theme was the importance of constructive irreverence in the lives of universities: the willingness to break intellectual boundaries and challenge conventional wisdom, while still striving to understand, appreciate and build on the ideas of others.

Universities, with their mission of advancing knowledge and understanding, need irreverence. Without it, inventors would not dream up better materials and products, philosophers would not propose novel theories of justice, and astronomers would not create new theories of the origin of the universe. Many of our most cherished thought leaders -- from Galileo, to John Locke, to Marie Curie and Martin Luther King Jr. -- advanced knowledge and understanding precisely because they questioned the status quo and replaced it with something better.

The "constructive" part of the equation is equally important. University communities are learning communities. This learning is not unidirectional -- wisdom doesn't flow only from faculty to students --but rather involves all members of our community listening to, learning from and teaching each other. Successful learning communities must be grounded in an ethos of respect, even among individuals who do not always agree.

Although talking about constructive irreverence is easy, it can be challenging to foster a community whose members are both irreverent and respectful of each other. There is necessarily a tension between the two. But even more challenging is to help people from outside of our campuses appreciate what constructive irreverence means for how universities confront and make progress on intellectual and moral issues about which there is disagreement.

This has become very evident over the past fall, as students at Brown and other colleges and universities across the country have protested for greater racial justice on campuses and in society at large. These protests may have been sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, but they stem from much longer-standing and widely-shared concerns that universities have not made sufficient progress in supporting the academic aspirations of students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in (and, at some points in history, simply excluded from) higher education.

The protests, rallies, sit-ins and confrontations have generated extensive media coverage , with headlines such as "Experts Consider What the Protests over Racial Tensions Mean," "The Lie About College Diversity," "The New Intolerance of Student Activism," "Fighting for Free Speech at US Universities," and "The Campus Fascists are Getting Worse." These articles reflect sharp divides in how student activism is viewed, as well as a range of opinions about what the protests signify for the state of colleges and universities in the United States. A common thread in many articles is a sense of alarm --that something has gone awry in higher education, and that the demands of student activists are pulling universities away from their missions of open inquiry and the advancement of knowledge.

As a university president, the views I see expressed in many articles leave me baffled and frustrated, because the way that events on campus are being portrayed do not match the reality of what I see taking place, or what I hear from my peers about events on their campuses. Where some see threats to the core missions of universities, others of us see constructive irreverence in action. Two key points are often overlooked or misunderstood by those viewing campus events from the outside.

The first point is that advances in media mean that irreverence is captured and propagated today in ways that were previously impossible. For example, at Brown's 1790 commencement ceremony, a student named James Tallmadge spoke passionately and persuasively in support of abolition. He boldly made his remarks to an audience that would have included a number of members of the Brown Corporation who were in the slave-trading business -- the very people who were about to grant Tallmadge his college degree. If this audacious act could have been captured on iPhones and posted on YouTube for all the 18th-century world to see, I am quite certain it would have generated the same strongly felt and divided opinions as video clips of 21st-century student protests.

The problem now is that the world sees the irreverence without observing the full breadth and seriousness of discussions about race taking place on campuses, which creates a distorted view. The highly visible student protests across the country that occurred this fall have been valuable in raising awareness of the legacy and current realities of racism on college campuses, but they are only one piece of the story. For example, at Brown, faculty, students, staff and alumni have been working for more than a year on plans to promote a more diverse and inclusive campus, many components of which have already been put into place. The set of actions in the Pathways to Diversity and Inclusion plan that was released to our campus in its final form on Feb. 1 have been informed by countless communications with students, faculty, staff and alumni.

I and other university leaders at Brown have met with many people who are eager to address the very real issues being confronted on our campus. And we have met with others who need assurance that the actions we take to produce a more diverse and inclusive community are consonant with our commitment to advancing free inquiry and academic excellence. Similar conversations are taking place at colleges and universities across the country. Although we'll never achieve consensus on all matters, these conversations are helping universities hone constructive, forward-looking plans. This work born of constructive irreverence is contributing to the fulfillment of our mission of preparing all students to thrive and lead in the complex and changing settings they'll encounter after they graduate.

This leads to the second point that is often misunderstood as the world beyond our campuses observes the recent student activism. This is the fact that the goals at the center of discussions about campus diversity are entirely consistent with -- and in fact integral to -- universities' missions of education and the advancement of knowledge. Universities and colleges are called upon to recruit the best and brightest students -- rich and poor, from all racial and ethnic groups and nationalities, and with varying political perspectives and religious beliefs -- with the drive and inspiration required to become leaders in their fields. The faculty who teach them also represent a broad range of backgrounds, experiences, nationalities and intellectual approaches.

Diversity pays a dividend by contributing to a vibrant intellectual environment where constructive irreverence can flourish. The status quo is more likely to be challenged in environments where individuals do not share the same beliefs. The ability to learn from others is enhanced when members of a community have different backgrounds. The range of subjects that are researched and taught is increased when faculty look at the world from different points of view.

When we bring together students and scholars to study issues such as the intersection of geopolitical conflict and clean water, or patterns of disease in diverse populations, or, in my own field, the connections between economic development, health, poverty and inequality, advancing knowledge and discovery depends on the presence of an exciting mix of voices and ideas. It's our charge, then, to ensure that all members of our diverse communities have the resources they need to thrive and make an impact on the world.

Although the value of diversity is, for the most part, appreciated in academic circles, the protests of the fall are a reminder that it takes work to build successful diverse communities to sustain the core mission of higher education. The months of university leaders talking with members of our communities about racial discrimination and racial justice reflect this. Although there is not always agreement on the tactics we should follow to make progress, there is widespread consensus on what the broad goals should be.

Most campus discussions do not focus on "safe spaces," "trigger warnings" or many of the other things widely discussed and debated outside of higher education. Students simply want what all students should be entitled to: intellectually stimulating and socially supportive environments in which they are free to learn, discover, question and sometimes quarrel, confident in the knowledge that they are full and valued members of their communities.

The unfortunate reality is that eliminating racial inequities -- on campuses or in the country and world at large -- is some of the most difficult but important work we must undertake. Inequity is too deeply ingrained in our social, economic and educational structures for quick fixes. But we stand at a moment of opportunity. Colleges and universities cannot solve the problems of racism and discrimination globally, but we can be a vanguard in cultivating the thoughtful conversations which take place, often unseen, that can bring us to an upward inflection point. We can build diverse and inclusive communities that graduate students who thrive and go on to create new business models, new forms of creative expression, and new social movements that serve our society.