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Dialogue and diversity strengthen the nation

Published in the November 22, 2016, edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail

by E. Gordon Gee

Following a hard-fought contest, reactions across our nation are proving as sharply divided as the presidential election returns themselves. Emotions are running high throughout our country, including on our university campuses. 

Amidst this rushing stream of anger, confusion and unrest, I believe West Virginia University must be a rock of principle. That is why, in this era of divide and conquer, in this time of division and even despair, West Virginia University is standing up for civil dialogue. 

Our university, like many others, is a miniature version of the wider world, with students from 110 countries, 50 states, 55 counties and a wide range of experiences. 

It is exhilarating — and necessary — to have people from different backgrounds, different ethnicities, different races and different viewpoints within a university community. 

We are preparing students to thrive in a diverse world, so we must open their horizons and engage them with a diverse group of peers and educators. 

Diversity is not merely a mathematical proposition, however. Its value lies in helping students learn from each other through daily conversations and daily contact. 

Sadly, if you walk through our Mountainlair student union at lunch time, you are apt to see students segregating themselves into social groups along racial or ethnic lines. 

If we cannot spend time together, including the uncomfortable times, then how will we learn to live together in the wider world? 

It is perhaps not surprising that, in many ways, universities are a reflection of the splintered state of America today. 

How many people followed the 2016 election through a carefully curated selection of news and social media sources that only reinforced their own preconceptions? 

As a university, we must lead our students out of that splintered, blinkered state and into one of fairness, enlightenment and respect for our shared democratic heritage. 

As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written, “Everyone who cares about education should remember that the American motto of e pluribus, unum (from many, one) has two parts. The celebration of pluribus should be balanced by policies that strengthen the unum.” 

Our country’s founders understood free and open discussion is the cornerstone of democracy, and they enshrined our right to free speech in the U.S. Constitution. 

A university’s role is not to make people comfortable; it is to make them think. Our responsibility is not to shield students from the harsh winds outside. It is to teach them how to weather strong disagreements. 

In the words of President Abraham Lincoln, who led at a time of greater division and despair than we can imagine, “We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.” 

Any attempt to deny free speech protections to others is a threat to our own freedom. 

It is a threat to education. And it is a threat to democracy itself. 

Universities must never tolerate discrimination or intimidation based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, disability, nationality, veteran status, immigration, socioeconomic background or political affiliation. 

We must be sanctuaries for civility, not echo chambers that drown out dissenting opinions, nor talk-show spectacles where the loudest and most vulgar voices prevail. 

Unfortunately, these days, we see minds closing and civil discourse withering all around us. We see it in candidates’ debates that become mud-slinging contests rather than exchanges of ideas. We see it across the internet, which has become a platform for rude and sometimes vicious commentary. 

We even see it on our nation’s campuses, where some students demand safe spaces and trigger warnings to protect them from opposing viewpoints. 

Some commentators have gone so far as to accuse this generation of students of being coddled or pampered. I know our students. That is far from the truth. Students at West Virginia University are energetic, alive, engaged and intellectually curious people. 

At institutions whose students have refused to let speakers of different views come to campus or have insisted that opinions they oppose be discredited, renounced or purged, university leaders bear most of the blame. 

As administrators, we have been educated to help young adults thrive and mature in a college setting. Yet some administrators across the nation seem to be paragons of pusillanimity when they should be models of principle. 

As for me, I believe in our students. I believe in the university experience. Thought, reason and debate will be our antidote to incivility and intolerance. Respect, empathy and connection will be our rebuke to hatred, violence and discrimination. 

On Nov. 14, our students held a Unity Circle to celebrate that we are, now and always, one West Virginia University.

And, by setting a standard for open and forthright discourse, we hope to strengthen the shared principles and values that bind us as one West Virginia and one United States of America.