Open expression and the role of universities

The second installment of the School of Arts & Sciences’ new dialogue series featured a discussion about the current state of discourse around universities.

Four people sit in chairs on an auditorium stage in front of a sign reading Living the Hard Promise.
The School of Arts & Sciences’ second installment of its “Living the Hard Promise”series looked at the current state of discourse around universities.

The second event in the School of Arts & Sciences “Living the Hard Promise” dialogue series featured a discussion with Herman Beavers, Paul Sniegowski, and Peter Struck about the current state of discourse around universities and how to ensure that institutions like Penn can continue to advance public understanding of and support for their essential role. The chat was moderated by the Graduate School of Education’s Laura Perna, vice provost for faculty.

The School of Arts & Sciences (SAS) announced the new series last fall to encourage respectful dialogue across the Penn community. “Universities have a unique and critically important role to play in promoting constructive dialogue on complex issues,” said Dean Steven Fluharty, who started the conversation. “We felt that we had an obligation to make such dialogue possible for students, faculty, and staff.”

The “Living the Hard Promise” event series is the result, Fluharty said, intended to help create opportunities for promoting necessary dialogue, sharing perspectives, and providing informed commentary. The first event featured a conversation with history professor Sophia Rosenfeld that looked at the purpose, history, and challenges of open expression on campus. That conversation was led by Beth S. Wenger, associate dean for graduate studies in SAS.

The second event examined the role of universities, which have come under criticism in recent months.

“It is more important than ever that we not shy away from the criticism of universities and confront head on the questions raised, such as what role does the university play in a democratic society? What part does it play in promoting open discourse? Who gets to decide? How do we communicate our mission and values to the larger public beyond our campus?” Fluharty said.

Perna led the panelists in a wide-ranging conversation that tackled topics like the role of universities, why open expression is a core value on college campuses, and how to counter critics who contend universities are ideologically driven and don’t provide a space for a diversity of viewpoints.

“The university makes it possible for people to move out of spaces of unknowing into spaces of knowing,” said Beavers, Julie Beren Platt and Marc E. Platt President’s Distinguished Professor of English and Africana Studies. He used an example of teaching Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” to students who have never encountered heavy topics before.

“I want students to move to a space where it’s OK to say, ‘I don't know.’ The university thrives on that kind of thinking,” he said. “What makes this exciting is that we don’t know what the conversation will be like” when class starts and where it will go during that hour.

Ideally, said Sniegowski, Steven A. Levin Family Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of biology, universities are places where a new, reliable understanding of humanity and the natural world is developed and shared.

“For that to happen, we need to be ready to entertain all possibilities, all different ideas, all perspectives, which leads directly to the need for full diversity,” he said. “It also leads directly to the need for allowing for the expression of all those alternatives. If we do that, the role the university plays is for the common good.”

Struck, professor of classical studies, spoke of the university as a space where the unknown is valued.

Oftentimes in society, Struck said, people default into the position of devaluing the unknown and instead insisting they have it all figured out. “That strikes me as strange,” he said. “The world is worth getting to know, it has many layers to it, and declaring that you have full knowledge of it all is the ultimate sign that you don’t know anything.”

The audience for the conversation in the Penn Museum’s Widener Lecture Hall included undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff, who were all invited to ask questions after the discussion.

Wrapping up the event, Perna invited further discussion. “We know there is more work to do, and these are really, really important conversations.”