Columnists Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal and Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times spoke about ideological diversity on college campuses and its effect on freedom of speech before a crowd of students and community members on Monday evening. Although President Clayton Rose and the committee of students and faculty who planned the event designed it with the intention of opening up “vigorous discussion” on “difficult critical issues” and allowing students to hear different perspectives, many students felt that the speakers did not strongly challenge each other’s viewpoints and did not sufficiently address issues of free speech with reference to colleges like Bowdoin.

“I’ve heard from other people (including myself) that we wish that the two speakers were more at odds with each other or more at odds with the beliefs that we held as [individuals],” said Laura Griffee ’17. “I definitely think that each of the speakers did bring up interesting points here and there, but I think overall I wanted to re-evaluate my views in some ways, and I don’t know if this discussion necessarily did that.”

The event, entitled “Up for Discussion: Political Correctness and Free Speech on College Campuses,” was organized by a small working group of students, faculty and staff last fall. The topic was determined based on the results of a survey of Bowdoin students last December. Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies Connie Chiang moderated the discussion.

Both Kristof and Riley agreed that colleges often do not expose students to enough ideological diversity, but somewhat disagreed about who should be responsible for increasing this diversity of thought. 

“I do think that there is a problem that American universities tend to be particularly liberal places, and often don’t adequately expose students to conservative viewpoints,” Kristof said. “I believe in embracing diversity of races, of ethnicities, of religions and also of ideologies, and I think that … we’ve sometimes neglected that issue of ideological diversity. I fear that the Trump election may compound that in the next four years, as each side becomes more polarized.”

Riley expressed a similar sentiment. 

“[The mission of the College should be] to get kids out of their comfort zone, allow them to develop their critical thinking skills, argue with people, debate people, learn that saying ‘I’m offended’ shouldn’t end an argument … learn how to analyze an issue from different points of view, because I don’t think you’re doing the kids any favors by letting them exist in this bubble,” said Riley. 

Riley added that he feels the responsibility for lack of ideological diversity falls on faculty and administrators.

“These kids feel intimidated into silence through the environment, and I place the emphasis really on the adults running the campus that have allowed such a hostile environment for people who hold different perspectives,” Riley said. “If you want to be exposed to different points of view, have forums like this. Invite conservatives on campus to speak and expose kids to different points of view.”

To this point, he argued that colleges need to encourage liberal professors to teach objectively. 

“There are some conservatives that say … we need to hire more conservative professors to counterbalance the liberal professors,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s the way to go. I’d rather we hire people to keep their politics out of the classroom.”

Kristof suggested that all individuals have a role to play in seeking out ideological diversity.

“I think work should begin at every possible end,” Kristof said. “Whether we are students or faculty or adults in the community, [we] can try to … open ourselves to information sources that we deeply disagree with.”

Student reactions to the event were mixed, and many expressed frustration or disappointment. Many hoped for more disagreement and debate between the speakers.

“I felt as though at some places of the conversation it was superficial to some extent,” said Mohamed Nur ’19. “It could have been more confrontational, it could have taken more risks, but I think overall it was good. It was good to hear different viewpoints and opinions and I think that helps us as a campus and as a community make progress.”

Other attendees commented on the lack of specificity in the discussion. Neither speaker nor the moderator addressed free speech at Bowdoin specifically. 

“I was very frustrated, especially considering what happened last year with all those incidences … that the moderator did not bring up the issue of cultural appropriation,” said Hailey Wozniak ’20. “Both the journalists seemed to just kind of be repeating the same things and speaking kind of vaguely.”

Although Wozniak said the talk could have been improved, she expressed gratitude toward the speakers.

“It was still very incredible to have them both come,” she said.

Rebkah Tesfamariam ’18, a member of the committee that organized the event, was satisfied with the outcome.

“The goal of a conversation doesn’t have to be everybody changing their personal views or everybody agreeing, but somehow coming to a mutual understanding that there are valid different points of views,” Tesfamariam said. “Also to give people the space to hear different perspectives that they may not hear on campus already, and I think both of those goals were achieved for sure.”

“They both sort of seemed to punt on questions about sort of addressing issues with universities specifically, which seemed bizarre given that that was essentially what this was supposed to be about,” said Alex Vasile ’16. “It was just not enough going on for me. Sort of a shallow almost like introduction, and you’d think with all the time and effort that went to putting this event together … It seems like we should have come out with a little bit more.”

Chiang asked questions to the columnists for the first 45 minutes of the event. During the final 30 minutes, the speakers responded to questions from students in the audience. After the discussion in Pickard Theater, about 200 students discussed the event in small groups in Thorne, joined by Kristof and Riley.

Many students responded positively to this post-event discussion.

“I think that it was really constructive having this talk after,” Griffee said. “I think the other students and I came to the conclusion that the entire campus needs to be forced to talk about this … I think that people on campus are just not talking to one another and we need to hear what each other has to say, and I think that that’s something that I got and am excited about and want to figure out a way to make that happen.”

Tesfamariam agreed.

“I think that a lot of the conversations I had with students afterwards were really productive,” she said. “I sat at a table where a lot of different points of views were brought up, and it was a really comfortable conversation … I think that we were all very respectful of each other, and I think that that was a really good example of how we should be conducting conversation all the time.”