Civil Discourse Event discusses handling controversial topics on college campuses

Students, faculty, and other community members gather to have important conversations about free speech on college campuses. Mesha Mittanasala | Photographer

By Rory Dulock | Staff Writer

The universitywide Civil Discourse Event: Perspectives on Free Speech on College Campuses covered varying opinions about the place of controversial topics, viewpoint diversity, bias and censorship Tuesday evening.

Dr. Michael Whitenton — lecturer in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, co-director for Bridging the Gap and leader of the Bridgebuilding Fellows program — led the session.

“The Bridgebuilding Fellows is created out of Bridging the Gap grant, which is through Interfaith America to do training around bridge-building on Baylor’s campus, and undergraduates from that are the Bridgebuilding Fellows,” Whitenton said. “We wanted to give them an opportunity to demonstrate the skills of this program.”

The Bridgebuilding Fellows program is trying to create a culture shift at Baylor, Whitenton said.

“Any community is going to have tension; college campuses have tension. The hope is that when those tensions arise, our impulse is to turn toward each other and to talk instead of siloing,” Whitenton said. “We’re doing that through trainings, through bridging events, planned bridging events, but then also on-call things.”

Whitenton, with the help of the Bridgebuilding Fellows, discussed polarization in America and how it impacts college campuses. He said surveys show 45% of students are afraid to share their opinions due to the fear of facing backlash from their peers. He shared that to “depolarize,” students need to be able to step out of high-conflict situations, practice deep listening, find common ground and build real relationships.

Another goal of the session was for students to practice listening to others and to work on their personal bridge-building, Whitenton said.

“It can help students to … walk away with skills of how to listen really carefully to people and have an experience across difference,” Whitenton said. “Some of this, people get really worked up about what [difference] could be like. It gets way worse in their mind. But if we can get people to sit down and actually have a conversation across difference in an accessible way, then it all becomes a little less scary.

Rockwall sophomore and Bridgebuilding Fellow Kristen Mathson said she just completed her training and now gets to help with events like the Civil Discourse Event, guiding meaningful conversations.

“[The Bridgebuilding Fellows are] providing a space, providing a structured space for students to share their thoughts and communicate without an argument,” Mathson said. “We are just here to facilitate conversations with people who may not have been through the training, just to help things run more smoothly and just to sort of demonstrate the skills that we’ve been learning.”

The last objective of the event was to have a conversation about perspectives around free speech on college campuses, Whitenton said.

“On college campuses right now, [free speech] questions are top of mind,” Whitenton said. “We want Baylor to be different. We want to be able to talk about these things and to do that in a way that is characterized by love for each other and understanding, even when we disagree deeply.”

Rory Dulock is a freshman from Lindsay, Texas, who is majoring in journalism with an emphasis in news-editorial. In her first year of the Lariat, she is excited to collaborate with the other staff members and learn how the publication process works. After graduation, she plans to get her masters in journalism and go on to write for a news agency.