Monday, August 10, 2015

Preventing the tyranny of the minority: Disinvitation and dissenting opinions

Haverford College, the prestigious and bucolic liberal arts school located in the Philadelphia suburbs, made national news in May 2014 when Robert Birgeneau, former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, withdrew as commencement speaker following student complaints about his role in the 2011 Berkeley Occupy protests. The students’ letter, as summarized by, urged Birgeneau “to meet nine conditions, including publicly apologizing, supporting reparations for victims, and writing a letter to Haverford students explaining his position on the events and ‘what you learned from them.’ Birgeneau declined and withdrew.”

Birgeneau’s disinvitation was one of many high-profile events during that graduation season; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Condoleezza Rice, and Christine Lagarde were all disinvited at different commencements or withdrew in response to student demands. This troubling trend made national news, prompting FIRE to compile a comprehensive report on the issue, and earned a chapter in FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff’s Freedom From Speech. An important aspect of these disinvitations is that they are often prompted by a small group of vocal students who do not necessarily represent the views of the student body. Disinvitations are pernicious blights on college reputations that shortchange open-minded students interested in learning about dissenting viewpoints.

While I am not a student at Haverford College, most of my social circle is there. This summer I am living on Haverford’s campus, which is a member of a class-sharing consortium with my school, the University of Pennsylvania. After reading Freedom From Speech, I set out to learn what the campus attitude was at the time of the disinvitation.

It was extremely difficult to find anyone who even knew the people who called for Birgeneau to withdraw. One rising senior I spoke to was a sophomore at the time of the disinvitation. Her memory of the event was that it was a relatively small group of students that wanted the speaker to step down, whereas most of the campus community members were perfectly happy to hear the chancellor’s thoughts. This student made it clear that the group who demanded Birgeneau’s disinvitation proceeded without the support of the majority of the student body or the administration, and the resulting withdrawal was a serious blow to the credibility of discourse on campus.

An article in The Clerk, Haverford’s independent student newspaper, quoted then-sophomore George Ordiway as saying, “We sort of entered the dialogue with a conclusion, and wanted to work backwards[.] … We need to approach with a slightly more open mind.” His hesitancy about the letter’s tone and intensity of its demands reveals the issues with disinvitation, insofar that it creates hostility that could limit open dialogue. Indeed, Birgeneau’s incisive response demonstrates that he had no desire to engage with demands that decried one aspect of his history rather than looking holistically at his accomplishments. One of his colleagues, Dr. Nadesan Permaul of Berkeley, wrote to the school and berated them, stating the student body “missed an opportunity to validate the very principles that Berkeley students are rightly famous for championing; ‘free speech.’” The disinvitation at Haverford is microcosmic for the disintegration of the intellectually challenging exchange of ideas on campuses.

One theory explaining the problems of disinvitation may be found in John Stuart Mill’s seminal work On Liberty. In it, he points out the absurdity of those who refuse to acknowledge other positions or arguments:

    "Strange that [those who do not recognize the other side of arguments] should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain".

And many students intuitively understand the need to face their dissenters. My friend at Haverford believes that it was important for Birgeneau to speak at her campus because even if people disagreed with his opinion because of his actions, they would have been able to solidify their arguments by hearing him speak. Disinivitations that come from a minority of students harm the rest of the student body’s ability to exchange ideas.

The principle behind inviting a speaker is to give them the benefit of assuming they have something worthwhile to say. Disagreeing with a single facet of a speaker’s beliefs shortchanges a more nuanced conversation about issues that are necessary to form developed opinions. If you are interested in other disinvitations that have taken place in recent years, check out FIRE’s new disinvitation database so you can speak out in an informed manner when a small group attempts to push a speaker off-campus.


UK: Green light for the first 'new' grammar school in 50 years

Ministers are set to announce the first 'new' grammar school in 50 years, reviving the decades-old row over the role of academic selection in the State system.

Sources have told The Mail on Sunday that a Whitehall battle over whether to give the green light to the school in Sevenoaks, Kent, has finally been resolved after Government lawyers dropped their opposition.

If Education Secretary Nicky Morgan now approves the school, it will be hailed as a victory for Tory traditionalists who argue that the comprehensive system has made it harder for bright children from poor families to attend top universities and claim the best jobs.

Opponents argue that a selective system stigmatises those pupils who do not pass the 11-plus and damages nearby comprehensives.

Laws passed by Labour under Tony Blair make it illegal to open a new selective school, but do not bar existing schools from expanding.

The proposed new school for 500 girls in Sevenoaks would evade the ban by being classified as a 'satellite' branch of the all-girls Weald of Kent grammar, ten miles away in Tonbridge.

If the new school is a success, at least 12 further 'grammar satellites' are in the pipeline.

A previous attempt to open the Sevenoaks school – which has planning permission and a £16 million building fund – was rejected in 2013 on the basis that it was designed to be co-educational and could not be legally justified as the 'same' school if it took boys.

Then Ms Morgan's advisers warned that if the teaching staff were not contracted to work at both school sites, they might be considered separate institutions.

This newspaper understands that the Government has been satisfied by assurances from Kent County Council that there will be 'regular staff traffic' between Tonbridge and Sevenoaks.

A senior education source said: 'We were determined to make sure the new grammar was legally watertight. The last thing we wanted was for our opponents to accuse us of rushing into an ideologically-motivated decision.'

A Department for Education spokesman said legal advice was still being considered.


UK: University gender gap growing warns admissions chief

A worrying gender gap has emerged in higher education, with girls dominating admissions to leading universities, the head of the admissions service has warned.

Urgent action is needed to boost the number of boys applying to university to stop them becoming a “disadvantaged” minority, according to Mary Curnock Cook, the Ucas chief executive.

Young women are on average a third more likely to progress to higher education, Ucas statistics show. In some parts of the country, that number increases to 50 per cent.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Ms Curnock Cook said: “It means there is something like 32,000 young men missing from university.”

Her comments come just days before hundreds of thousands of teenagers are due to collect their A-level results on Thursday this week. Competition for places at top universities is expected to be especially fierce this year, with record numbers of applicants to Oxford, Cambridge and other top 10 institutions.

Ms Curnock Cook called for a "laser focus" on the issue of fewer boys going to university than girls.

If you look at most independent schools and high performing secondary schools, many of them will have a person whose full time job is to support their sixth formers.

She said: “My concern is in five or ten years’ time young men will be the new disadvantaged group. I remain astounded that there is not more political and societal focus on this."

The gender gap is most pronounced among pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Boys who live in the poorest 20 per cent of areas or who receive free school meals lag furthest behind girls in university admissions.

The figures will fuel concerns that white working class boys are under-achieving at school, with worse exam results than many other groups.

Ms Curnock Cook also warned that too many pupils are failing to study the A-level subjects they need to win places at the country's elite universities.

Teenagers from poorer homes are often studying vocational qualifications and are not being given the "handholding attention" they require to compete with their more affluent peers, she said.

While there has been a "major social change" over the past decade in terms of disadvantaged young people entering higher education, more needs to be done to tackle inequality and loosen the grip of middle-class children on top university places, she said.

Ms Curnock Cook said young people from richer backgrounds were currently six or seven times more likely to go to elite Russell Group universities, down from nine times in 2006.

"The gap has improved but it’s more challenging to tackle," she said. “If you look at the affluent population, their participation in higher education has been static for a decade. All the growth is coming from less affluent groups.

[But] it is true to say that those pupils are quite significantly more likely to be taking vocational qualifications rather than A-levels. We need more people from disadvantaged backgrounds to be doing better at GCSEs and progressing onto A-levels and then to [top] institutions.

A-level results: UCAS website crashes as results traffic quadruplesThe UCAS website had to be taken down because it was inundated with inquiries  Photo: GETTY IMAGES Ucas and Telegraph Clearing provide advice on Results Day

“If you look at most independent schools and high performing secondary schools, many of them will have a person whose full time job is to support their sixth formers.

“Then you go to an academy in a more deprived area and probably the school’s main focus is getting above the floor targets at GCSEs, including English and maths.

“Even if in a school like you have a handful of people who would be capable to do well at A-level and progressing, they are probably not getting the handholding attention than people from more affluent backgrounds are getting.”

Universities have come under increasing pressure to widen their access to students from different background. Many now run summer schools and other outreach programmes in a bid to boost their intake from poorer students.

Controversially, some elite universities now make lower A-level offers to pupils from deprived state schools than they do to other teenagers, believing that they will succeed in higher education even if they have lower grades at school.

But Ms Curnock Cook said that academic achievement in secondary school and even primary school was still holding students back.

"If someone has not done well in primary school it is even more difficult to bring them up in secondary school, so it goes right back to the very start," she said.

"Improvements in education achievement are very important. The other thing that characterises the problem very much is the ability of schools to support progression with really good advice and guidance."


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