The Edmond Sun


July 10, 2009

College campuses seek balance when views collide

COLUMBIA, Mo. — They call it Speakers' Circle, a First Amendment gathering spot at the University of Missouri where just about anything goes.

Confrontational evangelists condemn abortion and gay marriage. Conservative students bash President Obama's bailout plan. The rhetoric is heated, and the discussions not always polite.

College campuses have long been hotbeds of activism, from Vietnam War protests a generation ago to more recent efforts to roll back affirmative action in admissions.

But a rash of confrontations in recent years has led to a nationwide effort to promote civil debate on campus. A $4 million Ford Foundation initiative that began in 2006 and was expanded this year aims to promote dialogue on college campuses after a series of clashes between liberals and conservatives.

One of the colleges taking part in the foundation's effort is the University of Missouri, where a survey several years ago found widespread reports of harassment targeting minority student groups.

"We're not here to tell people what to believe and what not to believe," said Roger Worthington, the school's chief diversity officer. "The overall goal is to create safer places for the free exchange of ideas."

Missouri recently hosted a Ford Foundation "difficult dialogues" workshop for campus leaders from nine schools: Alaska-Anchorage, Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Missouri-St. Louis, Oklahoma State, Texas-Austin, Texas A&M; and Texas Tech.

Participants spent four days swapping stories about volatile classroom encounters and tips on promoting academic freedom, while tolerating offensive speech without allowing racial, ethnic, cultural and religious slurs or sexually explicit remarks.

They engaged in role-playing exercises including one that simulated an unpleasant classroom encounter between an evolution-denying student and an astronomy professor struggling to control her lecture. They also learned to avoid the name-calling shout-fests that often pass for public debate on cable television and political campaigns.

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