In a school-wide email yesterday, President Clayton Rose announced plans for a debate and discussion between Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Manhattan Institute fellow and Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley on December 5. Organized by a working group of students, faculty and staff that formed last fall, the debate will focus on free speech and political correctness on college campuses, a topic students chose in a survey last December.

“My hope and that those of us who are in the audience will be able to understand how to listen better, how to think about two very thoughtful, smart, engaged, informed people and how they articulate different perspectives on the same issue,” said Rose. “We may not agree with them, but...we can respect them and in a sense learn from how they engage.”

Kristof, whose weekly columns focus on human rights, women’s rights, health and global affairs, visited Bowdoin in 2012 to discuss his 2009 book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity to Women Worldwide.” In a column last fall, he addressed the issue of race and free speech on campuses, writing, “What’s unfolding at universities is not just about free expression but also about a safe and nurturing environment.”

In addition to his work as a Wall Street Journal columnist and a Fox News commentator, Riley is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. Riley gives approximately 15 speeches on college campuses a year. Last spring, he was disinvited to speak at Virginia Tech, due to concerns that his “writings on race in The Wall Street Journal would spark protests.”

“Kristof and Riley were clear favorites of the [working] group,” Rose said. “When we approached them, they were very excited about the structure, this idea of pairing, the topic, and of doing it together.”

Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies Connie Chiang will moderate the debate and discussion. Rose said Chiang will take student input and use real-time questions. 
Afterwards, 250 students, determined by a lottery system, will meet in Thorne Hall in groups of eight to discuss the event. Kristof and Riley will attend, joining student conversations and perhaps speaking at the end, Rose said. The event will conclude with a wrap-up session and real-time polling so students can share their takeaways. 

“Oftentimes we have...engagements like this and folks will come and legitimately pay attention and be interested, but then we leave and ... move it to the back of the file cabinet and not think much about it,” Rose said. “The idea [for the post-event] was how do we create a moment for direct reflection and engagement.”

Rose hopes the event will contribute to students’ ongoing discussions and further encourage school-wide conversations about “really challenging, difficult, uncomfortable issues.”

“[Engaging in these issues is] a central part of the Bowdoin mission,” said Rose. We should have big events like this. They’re fun, they’re exciting, [and] we’re going to learn a lot.”

Along with his “town hall” meeting last fall and his initiative to develop a Report on Diversity and Inclusion at Bowdoin, Rose sees the event as another way to engage the community in these issues.  

“I’m a big believer in experimenting,” said Rose. “We’ll learn, we’ll adjust...then we’ll move on to the next thing. We’ll get better. We’ll learn from that.”