During his 2018 commencement address, LSA Dean Andrew D. Martin made an impassioned case for the importance of free speech on campus. Protecting a set of ideals from challenges and refusing to engage with ideas that are unpleasant or horrific, he said, runs counter to the value of a university education. “When I see otherwise good-hearted people going to extremes to "protect" our community by raising drawbridges instead of lowering them; by building walls rather than opening windows; and by avoiding anything that might make somebody the slightest bit uncomfortable,” Martin said, “I see trouble ahead. Not just for the university, but for our country, and for our planet.”

Martin took up this issue alongside some of the most influential leaders in higher education from across the country as a speaker at the New York Times Higher Ed Leaders Forum. The forum brings university presidents, provosts, politicians, foundations, thought leaders, and professors together to have candid discussions about the issues facing higher education, and to learn about innovative solutions to some of the challenges on campuses across the country.

Martin participated in a panel titled “Unpopular Words Without Unruly Protests.” He was joined by alumna Rebecca Blumenstein, deputy managing editor of the New York Times, and Christina Paxson, president of Brown University. Martin discussed the rewards and the perils that can come with cultivating lively, passionate conversations on campus – especially when those conversations include controversial speakers or ideas. Martin believes these issues are essential to the purpose and value of public universities, such as U-M.

"Our charge as a public institution is to serve all the people of Michigan," says Martin, "which means creating a culture in which all voices are heard and considered. It’s an important challenge, and it’s one to which we are committed.”

The commitment has helped nurture innovations from faculty and students. Last fall, Arthur Lupia, Hal R. Varian Collegiate Professor of Political Science, and research professor at the Center for Political Studies, led a course called Beyond Partisanship, which taught students to work to find common ground on issues that Americans with different political leanings can all recognize as problems. The student organization, We Listen, emerged after the 2016 presidential election in order to help foster conversations between liberal and conservative students on divisive social issues. The conversations are not designed to persuade others to change their views, but to learn to understand why others have reached different conclusions.

“With our state’s rich mix of political perspectives, urban and rural populations, and challenges that unify all of us, U-M is an ideal place to learn to hear each other and to understand why we might not all see things the same way,” Martin says. “A rigorous, respectful dialogue that includes a diversity of voices is critical to working together better to find solutions."

Below, see Dean Martin on the “Unpopular Words Without Unruly Protests” panel at the New York Times' Higher Ed Leaders forum on May 31, 2018.

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Image by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography