Civil Discourse – Should Colleges maintain neutrality on political and social issues?

Colleges should not maintain neutrality on political and social issues

Authors: Zion Okano and the Civil Discourse Program

Should colleges maintain neutrality on political and social issues?  This question seems to come up every time there’s a political or social controversy in our country. The most recent example is how institutions of higher ed are struggling to address the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. It is my opinion that colleges should not feel the need to take a neutral stance on any political or social issue.

First, colleges have a responsibility to advocate for positive social and political change. Obviously what is considered positive will vary from person to person.  However, colleges should still be expected to promote good. Colleges are major institutions that often have a lot of social and political power. They have the power to draw attention to complex problems and support the development of actions to solve them. For example, LBCC uses its power to fund and support our Civil Discourse Program. This promotes constructive dialogue among the college’s students, employees, and surrounding community. Considering how high political polarization currently is in the Unitied States, this public support is an important contributor to positive social change.

Second, attempting to maintain neutrality is impossible and can hurt the image of the college. From an optics standpoint, attempting to position oneself as not having an opinion often leads to an institution that looks unconfident, uninformed and unsure of what it stands for. Many college students have strong opinions on political and social issues. They want to know where their college stands.   Additionally, neutrality does not look good to many prospective students who are looking for a welcoming community that they will be a part of for several years. Neutrality makes it difficult to know what kind of support a college will offer them if they feel a group their social identity is connected to is ever threatened or harmed. That is not a good look for a college.

Third, it is preferable for people to know what colleges believe so they can live up to those expectations. Personally, I’m more comfortable being a student at LBCC and OSU knowing that both institutions claim to uphold diversity and inclusion. Of course there are times when actions do not match words and these statements end up ringing hollow. However, even a hollow statement is better than nothing. It creates an expectation for how people on campus should view and interact with each other. Withholding that information communicates that the college is indifferent which can end up making people on campus feel indifferent toward each other.

Colleges should not be expected to maintain neutrality on any social or political issue. Colleges should be expected to say what is right, do what is right, and express their opinions on as many topics as possible to help and build positive and predictable environments for their students. Neutrality is a convenient way to avoid taking risks and dealing with blowback. It is also cowardly. College students, and the general population, should be able to know what the leaders of a college believe.

Colleges should maintain neutrality on political and social issues

Authors: Alleyah Forrister and the Civil Discourse Program

Should colleges maintain neutrality when addressing political and social issues? While there may be benefits to taking a strong stand on one side, it is more likely that remaining neutral has a greater benefit to all students.

When colleges avoid taking firm positions on hot-button issues, they promote intellectual adaptability, allowing room for evolving perspectives and new information. Being open to change promotes critical thinking and can prevent students from being overly influenced by the constantly changing narratives we see in the media today. As a member of LBCC’s Civil Discourse Program, I can confidently say that the lack of a central narrative or public statement about any one side of an issue allows me to look at all sides before coming to a conclusion. I am able to speak freely with my peers and have intellectual conversations where we are not pressured to commit to one opinion. Looking at difficult topics from a perspective of openness gives us a better conversation and better understanding. Allowing for intellectual adaptability on campus creates a space where students can explore a variety of perspectives with a better understanding of all sides. 

How many times have you seen a college or university make a statement on current issues and you think to yourself, ‘That doesn’t feel genuine’? You’re not alone. Earlier this year, Vanderbilt University released a public statement in response to a mass shooting that was generated by ChatGPT. Many colleges put out statements on public issues in an attempt to maintain political correctness, often as a means of self-preservation. Oregon State University has released many statements on public issues and I can recall the last two statements they sent out started with the phrase “I am deeply saddened by … [insert current event here]”(see here and here). Oregon State University is one of many schools that release public statements, yet most of these statements feel superficial and lack actionable steps toward real change. This performative activism undermines the core essence of higher education, which is to promote critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge. If colleges avoid making public statements, they avoid this sense of performative activism and can maintain their school’s integrity. 

Refraining from public stances can foster a more inclusive learning environment where diverse viewpoints are respected. When colleges avoid expressing explicit opinions, they create a space where respectful discourse is encouraged and students feel comfortable expressing their opinions. I myself have seen many colleges in southern states express public statements banning LGBTQ+ clubs and gatherings on campus. Of course, each college can express its public opinion. But perhaps if they maintained a neutral stance, there would be more room for growth and understanding on their campus. Maintaining a neutral approach promotes a culture of open dialogue and understanding, something that is needed for a well-rounded opinion. 

If colleges and universities were to maintain neutrality, they would promote intellectual adaptability, maintain their integrity, and foster an inclusive learning environment. Colleges and universities are the starting point for many young adults beginning their journey and it’s crucial that they impart the value of considering multiple perspectives, rather than a ‘pick-a-side’ mentality. 

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