In a statement Wednesday specifically crafted for the student body - on university letterhead - Interim Dean of Students Lori Berquam expressed her "extreme disappointment" in the marriage amendment's passage, characterizing the decision of 1.2 million Wisconsin voters a "strike against equality" and a "shameful aberration."I've been critical of the "Think. Respect" program for various reasons, but not really on this ground. Schmidt raises the question of whether a University that promotes diversity and respectful communication can also express some specific ideas of its own. I think it can. For example, university officials can -- and should -- express a belief that men and women are equal. But an individual student is free to argue that they are not.
Further, Dean Berquam's remarks were deliberate to thank those who "fought against" the amendment and gave praise to "young people and students (who) overwhelmingly rejected the amendment," seemingly disapproving my convictions and rejecting my value to the university community...
On a university campus obsessed with equality, diversity and freedom of self-expression, I prayed there would be room for my opinion as well.
Most aggravating, Berquam's remarks come mere months after administrators rolled-out the campus "Think" campaign to encourage respect for everyone's views.
Chancellor Wiley has said, "We want a campus that embraces difference and where respect is rampant."
My objection to "Think. Respect" is that it pressures students to be respectful when they interact with each other, but I think they have a right to express ideas with harsh brutality. They are entitled to scoff at and belittle someone who says something they find loathsome. It's preferable to frame articulate arguments based on facts and serious contemplation, but the university cannot require an idealized form of expression.
If the university expressed specific opinions in a disrespectful way, that would be hypocritical, but expressing specific opinions is not inconsistent with supporting diversity. As for the same-sex marriage issue, the university had a strong institutional reason for taking a position: The ban hurts our interest in attracting faculty and staff here. The university was not obliged to keep silent on the issue in order to prove our commitment to fostering open debate.
ADDED: Here's Berquam's letter (PDF). Read the whole thing and try to understand her motivations for writing it as well as Schmidt's reaction to it. Here's the final paragraph:
As we reflect upon the impact of this vote, it is important that we also remember the positives: young people and students overwhelmingly rejected the amendment. A diverse and wonderful coalition of people -- Democrats, Republicans, and Independents; numerous faith communities; people of all sexual orientations; lawyers, businessmen and women, clergy members, educators, and students; and people of all ages -- came together to fight this amendment. Though it may be but small consolation right now, it is hard to imagine that history will not one day prove this to be a shameful aberration in our otherwise progressive tradition.The letter, taken as a whole, characterizes the passage of the amendment as a blow against diversity (because of the way it excludes gay persons from the institution of marriage) and makes an effort to soothe the feelings of students who feel disrespected by the vote. Schmidt's point is that he feels disrespected by the letter, because he voted for the amendment and he's getting the message that his university thinks people like him are bad: Why is there no concern about his feelings? Isn't part of caring about diversity making people who believe different things feel welcome in the university environment?
I do think the letter would have been much better if it had shown respect and understanding for the students who supported the amendment and that it is inconsistent with the values of the "Think. Respect" program. If you want students to be able to debate about controversial issues, like this one, you shouldn't foment the idea that those disagree with you are the kind of people you should shun. If you want to equip your students to operate in the real world, you should encourage them to try to understand why their opponents think they way they do and to develop the kinds of arguments that can persuade them.