The Courage To Make Our Colleges Whole Again:

Removing Divisive Speech

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Above everything else, attending a university should be a safe experience. That’s how it used to be. But increasingly, college campuses nationwide have been in the news for tolerating hateful, bigoted, homophobic, misogynist and racist speech, with a divisive and insensitive environment being created in its wake.

Our country is founded on the principal of freedom of speech, and universities in particular have always welcomed the exchange of provocative ideas. But with the increase of speeches conveying negative content contrary to the facts, and being absent of decorum, it is not surprising that hate begets hate and angry words and personal insults are escalating.

While this troubling behavior should be inconsistent with university life, it has been intensifying over the past few years. A line of decorum has been crossed and speakers are heckled and shouted down. Graffiti, vandalism and racist fliers dot some campuses. Antagonistic and offensive speeches become an incitement for many to engage in hostile actions, causing riots and requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars to be spent on security. All of this taking place on college campuses, where the focus should instead be on the culture of questioning, thinking, learning and growing.

Hope for change lies in the courage of a few who are taking measures to change the tolerance of hate.

Last fall, a pro-Palestinian group at University of California Irvine (UCI) that has disrupted multiple Israeli-related events on campus through a pattern of harassment, intimidation and threats was placed on probation for two years.

Halfway up the California coast from UCI, at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly), most Greek organizations have been indefinitely suspended for behaving insensitively towards African American and Hispanic minorities and fostering racist stereotypes. President Jeffrey Armstrong is one of a handful of university presidents to make it clear that hateful acts of racism are unacceptable on a college campus. In a letter to the Cal Poly campus this month Dr. Armstrong said that actions extending beyond the First Amendment that promote physical harm “are punishable by discipline from the university, up to and including expulsion for students and termination for employees.”

Across the country and a day after Dr. Armstrong’s letter, an engineering fraternity was permanently expelled at Syracuse University in New York following a video which Syracuse University chancellor Kent Syverud reportedly described as “extremely racist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, sexist, and hostile to people with disabilities.”

The courage shown by these university leaders is admirable. They are returning their campuses to a place where provocative and challenging speech can take place without threats of harm, and where diversity and inclusion rather than divisiveness are the goals.

This courage need not stop with university leaders. This courage can serve as a motivating force for anyone interested in evaluating their own commitment to tolerance of others who do not share similar backgrounds, beliefs or heritage. This is not always an easy path to pursue, and requires having the courage to being open to new ideas, feelings and perspectives. We may feel vulnerable as we step outside our comfort zone examine innermost feelings that contribute to the creation of our stereotypes. But the rational and healthy thinking that naturally evolves from this process will help us view circumstances in a fresh and compassionate manner and turn today’s problems into an opportunity to come together as a community.

The Medieval Latin word for “university” is “universitatem,” which means “the whole, aggregate.” It’s time our universities once again become a whole and united institution for all who wish to learn. We can be a part of that changing tide. It just takes some courage.

Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, Board Certified Coach, is author of the recently published book, Overcoming Adversity: Conquering Life’s Challenges, published by Australian Academic Press. As a psychotherapist-turned life and business coach, Eileen has practiced for over 30 years with individuals, couples, families and groups experiencing a variety of emotional hurdles. For further information about speaking engagements and seminars on adversity related topics, contact her at [email protected], or visit her website at

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