All of us (probably) have read warning labels on all kinds of products. Such labels are omnipresent, so much so that the tendency to ignore them is pervasive. Warning labels can be useful, and on certain products, like medications, reading the label carefully might be essential. As we enter the fall semester of 2014, higher education is increasingly engaged in an escalating and complex series of conversations that include consideration of what may be appropriate “warnings” or perhaps disclosures. These conversations cover such issues as “content warnings” for courses, expectations for responsible discourse, campus cultures, the meaning and limits of academic freedom, and possible boundaries involving “free speech” and “civility”.
My motivation for this particular post is not to address the numerous, complicated reasons why higher education is currently engaged in these conversations. Rather it is to consider, and ask the members of the University of Rhode Island community to consider, what kind of disclosure or “warning label” might be consistent with both our identity as a public research university and our shared values.
Now, I’m not talking about things like: “The traffic coming to URI at 8.30am M-F can remind you of Boston”; or “The coldest part of campus in the spring is the baseball field if there’s a home game”; or “Multiple showers required after ooze ball”; or “Faculty Senate meetings can be a bit tedious, especially if the President speaks.” These facts are so well known across campus that a disclosure statement or warning label would be redundant.
I am thinking about the distinction between our ideal – that every member of our community should feel welcomed, affirmed, supported, and respected – and the notion that we should feel “comfortable” here at all times. When I was a young faculty member at Amherst College, our President at the time, G. Amour Craig, gave a commencement speech in which he critiqued the idea that the statement “I’m comfortable with that” constituted a sound basis for decisions at Amherst. He asserted, if memory serves accurately, that there will be times in which the best decision for the college and its students may well be one that makes at least some members of the community distinctly uncomfortable. The discomfort would arise perhaps because the right decision would encompass something new, or challenging, or entail some risk, or simply be a departure from the then-current, tacit assumptions widely shared across the campus.
President Craig was right, I think. “Comfort” may be the best criterion to use when securing an airline seat assignment, or choosing a mattress, but it could be misleading, inappropriate, or damaging if preferentially applied to the kinds of decisions frequently made at the University of Rhode Island. We must be especially cautious if the “comfort” standard reflects compatibility with our own social, political, philosophical, or religious views – for multiple reasons. First, the University of Rhode Island is a diverse community with widely varying views among its members, so seeking outcomes where everyone is “comfortable” at all times would inevitably lead to complete paralysis. More importantly, it is invariably a mistake for any individual, or group of like-minded individuals, to believe that they have a monopoly on the truth; history teaches otherwise. One of the best attributes of a university is that it can be, and should be, a place where one’s ideas, assumptions, and worldview can be challenged and examined in an environment that is supportive and encouraging. Consequently, in many instances the better response is not “I’m comfortable with that”, but something like: “I see your point. I’m not sure I agree, and it makes me uncomfortable, but I must admit that you may be right.”
After all, we are not aiming for comfort; we are aiming for truth.
So, perhaps the “warning label” for new students at the University of Rhode Island should read something like:
Caution. Joining the University of Rhode Island community may cause occasional mild to significant discomfort. Faculty members and fellow students may challenge your ideas and beliefs. You will be expected to respectfully challenge theirs, which may cause additional discomfort. You will also live and learn with people who are very different than you, which may lead to occasional mild anxiety. Do not be alarmed because such feelings are within the normal range. Assistance in dealing with these feelings will be provided by your advisor, resident academic mentor (RAM), RA, instructor, friends, and other members of the community. And remember, these experiences, although episodically uncomfortable, will help prepare you for success upon graduation from the University of Rhode Island.