Freedom Of Belief At The University Of Nebraska

Welcome to college, where our first priority is to get your commitment to our official list of non-negotiable beliefs.
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Welcome to college, where our first priority is to get your commitment to our official list of non-negotiable beliefs.

That's the message Ronnie Green, the new chancellor of the University of Nebraska−Lincoln, had for new students on August 19. He then emailed all UNL students, faculty, and staff an enthusiastic August 22 welcome to the start of the 2016-17 academic year. The campus, he began, "is packed with life, energy, and palpable momentum." He is "incredibly excited about [the] future" of Nebraska's "flagship of higher education."

The email reminds the UNL "family" of UNL's "commitment to diversity and inclusion." In that regard, "we ask that all members of the University community be especially mindful of our responsibility to create an environment that is welcoming to all, where each person feels accepted, valued and safe."

That seems a reasonable request. But it is followed immediately by this:

Our newly articulated belief statements enhance and clarify our conviction to this principle. At new student convocation this past Friday, we emphasized our beliefs and were met with enthusiastic response from the newest members of our family (and, we are very proud to say, LARGEST CLASS IN HISTORY). That's what I expected, because our beliefs on diversity and inclusion represent the way we operate. They are not-negotiable [sic].

The request thus turns immediately into an offer you can't refuse. Chancellor Green has informed UNL's new students that UNL has a non-negotiable list of expected beliefs about matters of diversity and inclusion. And he was pleased that there was no discernable dissent. The students apparently got the message that here at UNL there will be no negotiation with dissenters.

Let's take a look at those "newly articulated belief statements." The "beliefs on diversity and inclusion" expected of all UNL students, faculty, and staff begin with an opening paragraph that nods vaguely to respect, dignity, acceptance, diversity, inclusion, free speech, and academic freedom, all of them deemed crucial to "true excellence."

Then come the belief statements, six bulleted points that tell us in turn what "We" at UNL (all of us, presumably) value, strive for, insist on, believe in, share, and do. Let me focus on the first sentence of the fourth bullet, which most directly addresses belief. It reads, "We believe in the freedom of speech, and encourage the expression of ideas and opinions, and we do not tolerate words and actions of hate and disrespect."

In other words, here in the UNL community, we encourage you to speak up but if you say the wrong thing we will not tolerate it. Feel free to politely criticize the ideas of ISIS or the Ku Klux Klan, for example, but make sure not to show any disrespect, much less hatred, for any group, individual, or ideology. If you can't express yourself respectfully, shut up.

Elsewhere in the list of expected beliefs is this: "We ... recognize that our differences make us stronger." That's a familiar and important idea, but here it comes to us in a document about what speech must not be tolerated, and more specifically in a list of beliefs proclaimed by the chancellor to be non-negotiable.

There has been much discussion of censorship on college campuses. What is noteworthy at UNL is that the chancellor and administration are now targeting not just speech but underlying matters of belief. Here we see the slippery slope from control of speech to control of beliefs, from censorship to indoctrination.

In contrast, at the University of Chicago, which approved a free speech statement in 2015, students just received a letter from the Dean of Students highlighting Chicago's "commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression." "Members of our community," he wrote, "are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship." The "freedom to espouse and explore a wide range of ideas," he added, enables the community to benefit from its diversity.

Introducing a 1965 performance of his song "National Brotherhood Week," Tom Lehrer remarked, "I know there are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that." Half a century later we still need to remind ourselves and our students that diversity, inclusion, respect, intellectual freedom, and the First Amendment all require us to tolerate even those we deem intolerant.

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