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As the 2016-2017 academic year comes to an end, the University is already preparing to welcome the next incoming class in the fall. First-years will participate in a host of activities that comprises the University’s orientation program. This program is designed to ease the transition to campus life “by introducing first-year students to the values, expectations, and resources of the inclusive Princeton community.” Some of the objectives outlined on the orientation website are “Intellectual Engagement and Scholarly Inquiry,” “Community values, expectations and standards,” and “Inclusion and Belonging.” Presentations and activities at the university-wide, residential college, and zee group level seek to achieve these objectives. Part of the orientation process includes discussions on the Pre-read, where students will engage in small groups and be introduced to “thoughtful discussion.” While the Pre-read discussion might foster debate from different viewpoints concerning the Pre-read, there is no activity specifically dedicated to introducing students to engaging with ideas that they disagree with in either an academic or non-academic context.
The Board believes that orientation should include a presentation on engaging with opposing viewpoints. Due to the great diversity of Princeton’s community, students are likely to encounter ideas and speech with which they disagree during their four years here. Each incoming first-year student will be exposed to new classmates from all around the world as well as different ideas from professors and guest speakers. Further, learning how to engage with different viewpoints is critical not only to fostering a cohesive campus community, but also for engaging in effective scholarship.
Princeton’s Statement on Free Expression, which outlines the University’s stance on free speech, recognizes that “fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.” The right to free expression and the proper academic response to opposing ideas are inextricably linked. Unscholarly reactions to opposing ideas may end up suppressing free speech, if students are not willing to present contrarian and unpopular viewpoints under the fear of intimidation. The University should place equal importance on conveying the right to free expression and the responsibility to engage with opposing views appropriately throughout the orientation program.
The Board recommends that the University expose incoming first-years to student groups and faculty that are involved in debates on campus to explain the important role of intellectual discourse in University values. These students and faculty would be able to explain through their Princeton experience the best means of engaging with opposing views. The presentations made by students and faculty involved in debate are not limited to political discourse. On the contrary, this orientation activity should cover engagement with differing views in all settings on campus, including precept discussions, scholarly reviews, formal debates, and even op-ed writing. For instance, Professor Robert P. George and Cornel West GS ’80 have held many discussions in the past on engaging with different ideas besides their personal disagreements on many issues. Outside of the classroom, engaging with opposing viewpoints has practical implications in students’ everyday lives. If students are emotionally distressed by opposing viewpoints, the University should do more to teach students how to engage constructively with opposing views.
In addition, bringing these groups to the orientation process would enhance the program. This presentation would reinforce the close student-faculty relations that are unique to Princeton, and it would improve orientation by including more non-first-year students and faculty.
The dissent contends that such an orientation program would only truly be neutral if it included “every possible form of discourse that students might engage in.” At an academic institution, it is necessary for students to learn how to disagree with each other using academic methods, such as scholarly review and debate. This does not mean that other means of disagreement, such as non-violent protests and sit-ins, ought to be banned. It simply means that academic engagement falls under the University’s mission to train scholars.
While the University hopes that incoming first-year students will “reflect on best practices for meaningful engagement” during the orientation process, it is necessary to prepare incoming students to engage with opposing ideas at Princeton. The University should take advantage of the many students and faculty on campus who would be best able to introduce incoming first-year students to this fundamental principle of free expression. A presentation to first-year students during orientation week would enhance the orientation process and better prepare students for their time at Princeton.
Engaging with opposing viewpoints is an essential part of the academic experience. However, the dissent opposes the notion that the University should present students with any particular mode, standard, or best practice in which to engage in proper intellectual discourse as this would be an act of politicizing the University. The Majority’s proposal would only be feasible, apolitical, and neutral if the University were to provide every possible form of discourse that students might engage in, including written petitions, town halls, nonviolent protests, and sit-ins among others. There are many ways to engage with opposing viewpoints, and the University ought not instruct students on how to do so. Doing so would limit free speech despite the Majority’s determination to protect this right. There is no one form of correct or appropriate speech in the academic institution. As long as the University community is not threatened with violence, various forms of speech and discourse are permissible. Therefore, the University ought not establish any correct or proper form of discourse through an Orientation proceeding.
The Majority cited previous discussions between Professors Robert P. George and Cornel West GS ’80 as an ideal model for academic discourse. While greatly disagreeing on a myriad of topics, the two are able to debate openly and remain close friends. Though we do not deny that their example is admirable, we believe that there exists other forms of engagement such as peaceful sit ins and protests that can also be used to resolve conflict. When the course of events necessitates drastic change, intellectual discourse may not be the best way to address such concerns. A mere conversation did not lead to American independence, civil rights for Blacks, or marriage equality for the LGBTQ+ community. These changes came through pressure, conversation, but above all, these changes took action. We applaud the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students for continually sponsoring events on speech, discourse, and direct action from areas across the political spectrum. The University currently does a tremendous job in supporting the needs of its students whose voices demand to be heard. Through financially supporting viewpoints from across the spectrum, the University is not taking an official stance on the most appropriate form of speech.
While the dissent values the need for students to engage with opposing viewpoints on campus via conversation, we charge that a University stance on how to do so would limit the acceptability of other, perhaps more nonconventional, forms of engagement on college campuses such as walkouts or strikes. The previous conversations, petitions, protests and sit-ins of Princeton’s Black Justice League placed pressure on the University to create change in the following areas: the formation of the African American Studies department in 2015, increased funding for campus identity centers, the formation of the Task Force on General Education requirements, and the creation of committees to diversify the names of various buildings on campus. These changes were spurred through private conversations between students and administrators, but also through direct forms of protest. If the University were to create an orientation program endorsing one single form of discourse, the work done by groups such as the BJL across college campuses would be diminished. In a country built upon various forms of speech, the University ought not take an official stance on the issue through the Majority’s proposed orientation programming because doing so invalidates the important role of student activism.
Signed by William Pugh ’20, Ashley Reed ’18