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Have Colleges Gone Too Far with Sanctuary Campuses?

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Free Speech Rights on College Campuses are Being Stifled

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s victory, some colleges are looking to become sanctuary campuses. Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts college in Connecticut, became the first institution of higher learning to designate itself as such. Wesleyan states it will not assist with government efforts to deport undocumented students, faculty, and staff.

The California State University system appears to be headed in a more reasonable direction, recently reiterating that it would remain a welcoming space for undocumented students. But Chancellor Timothy White seems to have acknowledged that the system could be legally obligated to turn over information on illegal immigrants if forced by state or local agencies, Homeland Security, or any other federal departments. It’s a wise choice for a public institution since a sanctuary campus position threatens federal funding and potentially harms many students who depend on it for their college education.

UCSB put a new spin on the sanctuary campus idea last month when it proposed “sanctuary faculty” to protect those who feel distressed by some comments or events. The idea gained traction after UCSB’s Associated Students voted in favor of funding a talk by conservative Ben Shapiro granting the campus College Republicans $5,000 for the event. Left-wing students mobilized to protest his rhetoric as hate speech.

Some faculty are joining the controversy. Professors at UCSB proposed designating staff members as “sanctuary faculty” to “support students who are distressed.” At an on-campus forum one UCSB student complained Shapiro was making black students unable to focus in class because they were busy protesting his event. Where does it end? Can any offended group make the same claim?

I was intrigued when I read that at Ohio’s Oberlin College, the students have petitioned the administration demanding it become a sanctuary campus: “We want to take a “moral stand” on the issue…and to urge the administration to take the steps to make a meaningful institutional response to this very uncertain situation in which very vulnerable members of our college and university community could potentially be targeted.”

The idea that designating itself a sanctuary campus is somehow a moral position is short-sighted. Moral choices are personal choices based on personal values, not so much on objective considerations of how we should treat others.

The “moral stand” of campuses that seeks sanctuary status fails to consider important ethical issues: Will the designation as a sanctuary campus increase the costs of running the college and affect all students, even those who do not support the concept? Is it fair to all? Does it violate the rights of those with an opposing view?

The idea of sanctuary campuses continues a long-standing trend of political correctness run amok. Over the past few years, an increasing number of college commencements have become embroiled in controversies over the selections of the speakers for those events. Colleges and universities brace annually for “disinvitation season,” those thorny weeks before graduation when speakers flunk out due to politics. The unwelcome wagon has grown increasingly crowded in recent years but it stifles free-speech.

Many colleges campuses have embraced political correctness by putting up barriers as to what one group can and cannot on campus by designating “safe spaces” for those who feel threatened by divergent views. Rather than fostering an open and honest debate about controversial issues, which, after all, is the purpose of a college education, safe spaces separate those with opposing views.

Today it is not uncommon for colleges to lecture about the harm of “microaggressions,” a concept that generally proscribes everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.

Examples of microaggressions: Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say “you guys.” It could be interpreted as leaving out women.

Rather than seeking to help students to develop a thick skin, a college that protects one group of students from another’s free speech rights tends to deny them a chance to confront the offenders. It’s a recipe for disaster because open discussions about opposing viewpoints is essential to intellectual growth and development and prepares students for success in the workplace.

If you or your organization is interested in creating a stronger ethical environment and/or other workplace issues, I now offer programs to do so through “Geniecast.” The website address is: https://www.geniecast.com/browse-all-genies/steven-mintz.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 7, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.