Fostering free expression in a diverse world discussed at Cardinal Conversations event

How to balance freedom of expression, conflicting ideas and diversity was underscored at the fifth and final Cardinal Conversation for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Panel sitting on stage, Persis Drell speaking

Persis Drell, left, moderates a discussion on free speech and diversity with John Etchemendy, Claude Steele and Danielle Brown. (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

How to balance free expression in a diverse but increasingly polarized world was the topic of a lively discussion on Wednesday at Stanford University.

“It is incredibly difficult to balance the ideals of free expression with our ideals of an inclusive community that is truly welcoming for individuals of all backgrounds and perspectives,” said Provost Persis Drell who moderated a discussion with three guests representing industry and academy: Danielle Brown, Google’s vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer; John Etchemendy, a philosophy professor and provost emeritus of Stanford; and Claude Steele, professor emeritus of psychology and dean emeritus of Stanford Graduate School of Education.

The discussion formed part of the Cardinal Conversations initiative, a series of talks sponsored by the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies to discuss critical issues of the day from different perspectives.

As Drell said in her opening remarks for the event titled When Free Expression and Inclusion Collide: “We thought there could be no fitting end to our first season of Cardinal Conversations than by simply confronting this issue head on.”

Universities are becoming narrower in their political and intellectual opinions, said Etchemendy who authored The Threat From Within, an essay that was published in Stanford Report and the Chronicle of Higher Education about the challenges facing higher education. That is the greatest threat to universities and it’s hard to know how to counter it, he said.

Freedom of expression is essential to a university’s teaching mission, Etchemendy said. It is through diverse views that students can learn critical thinking skills. A university’s responsibility is not to protect students from upsetting ideas, but to equip them with the ability to respond, deal with and assess the claims they find objectionable or abhorrent, he said.

The demographics of American society are in transition, said Steele. These demographic shifts mean that institutions – such as schools and workplaces – are dealing with greater diversity than in the past.

The traditional approach to diversity, including ideas about being colorblind and assimilating to the mainstream, are not working anymore, Steele said. He noted that this model was also naïve as it ignored the greater historical context.

Steele said that institutions can take proactive steps to balance diversity and freedom of expression. For example, he said that is essential that there be a commitment to institutionally define free speech and open discussion.

This resonated with Brown, who strives for principles of diversity and inclusion in her position at Google.

Can these principles co-exist? she asked. She said they can but there are four essential things to make it happen. First, she called for an investment in building empathy. She emphasized the importance of being able to not just listen and learn but seek different perspectives. Second, she said there needs to be ways to develop skills in resiliency. Third, she called for more respect.

Finally, Brown stressed the importance of allies. For marginalized or underrepresented groups in your community or at your institution, it can be exhausting to defend the right to belong, she said.

Having accomplices are pivotal to effecting change, Brown said. During the question and answer portion of the event, Brown pointed to an interfaith group started at Google that has offered a unique way to find common ground through faith and bring different groups together.

“We don’t do as good a job as we could at enabling people to talk across identity lines in non-threatening contexts,” said Steele. He called for more structure at universities to promote cross-cultural engagement and underscored the importance of resources that can support students throughout this process.

As Etchemendy reiterated, it is important that there be investment on the nonacademic side of a university, such as work done by the Office of Student Affairs – that is key for students to succeed.

This event was the last for this academic year in a series of talks.

Cardinal Conversations launched in January of this year to ensure that diverse perspectives are actively discussed at Stanford. The idea for the series originated from a diverse group of undergraduates, with views from across the political spectrum, who felt that more could be done to express contested issues at Stanford. The first Cardinal Conversation examined the intersection of technology and politics with Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel. The following event discussed inequality in populism with Francis Fukuyama and Charles Murray. The third conversation addressed real and fake news with journalists Anne Applebaum, Ted Koppel, and Jessica Lessin. The fourth panel in the series talked about sexuality and politics with Christina Sommers and Andrew Sullivan.