Vail Symposium dives into campus culture wars |

Vail Symposium dives into campus culture wars

Megan Ridle
Special to the Daily
ClayJenkinson moderated a panel discussion with academics Keith Whittington and Robert Shibley on Wednesday at the Vail Interfaith Chapel as part of the Vail Symposium's ongoing “Conversations on Controversial Issues" series.
Arzu Basyildiz/Vail Symposium

Politics are everywhere: Late-night television, billboards, and most unfortunately, speaking in paragraphs on mom’s Facebook.

The Vail Symposium has delved into the political discourse with its ongoing series, “Conversations on Controversial Issues” with Clay Jenkinson. Jenkinson is a writer, presenter, and host of the podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour.” With the Vail Symposium, Jenkinson has discussed topics such as the Supreme Court, immigration, and voting rights.

On Wednesday, March 22, the Vail Interfaith Chapel hosted a fourth installment of the series, titled, “Higher Education and Culture Wars.” Jenkinson moderated a panel that tackled issues regarding free speech on college campuses stemming from buzzwords such as cancel culture, trigger words, and social justice.

Jenkinson was joined by Keith Whittington and Robert Shibley. Whittington, Princeton’s William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics, portrayed the realities of working in academia. Shibley, a Duke law school graduate and a free-speech activist, discussed censorship he observed during his career at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

While recognizing that problems run rampant in all political extremes, the discussion emphasized how social justice movements promote academic censorship.

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“Social justice is an end,” Whittington noted, “but it’s an end that can ultimately trump the search for truth.”

He added: “There’s a lot of people inside of universities at this point who want to argue that if ideas are true, but they undermine our political agenda relative to social justice, it’d be better if we didn’t have those ideas.”

Whittington’s commentary raised a question: Should universities place non-dissension above nuanced debate?

Shibley’s response expanded on the issue.

“In the modern university setting, the search for truth, the idea that you’re going to allow anything to be investigated,” he said. “I think that’s the only practical thing we can rely on as a mission for a university.”

The panel discussion tackled recent headlines from the college culture wars, such as Penn State administrators canceling a campus speaking event featuring Gavin McInnes and Alex Stein of the alt-right group, the Proud Boys, over security concerns or Hamline University not retaining an art professor for showing a painting of the Prophet Muhammed — despite offering repeated warnings for sensitive content.

The panelists recognized the problem as more than academic.

“There’s just a sense that, that’s a volatility that’s really best left alone,” Jenkinson said of the Hamline University conflict — as all media coverage of the event avoided showing the artwork in question.

During his career in academia, Whittley gained first-hand experience with the implications of academic priorities. The chilling results, he said, include limiting what professors can research, as they wonder whether backlash over the topic “is worth it.”

“There’s a bureaucracy who’s precisely concerned with saying, ‘But I have this student who’s offended, and for some reason, something happened in the classroom,’” he said. “The priority of those actors within the university is how do I comfort the student and denounce the professor making these statements in a procedural way.”

To the presenters’ point, if our universities rank sensitivity over information and our educators’ reputations are tarnished for speaking the truth, then the First Amendment is walking the line. It is essential for individuals to preserve this right.

“The goal is to defend without being defensive,” Jenkinson told the crowd, “and to criticize without being righteous.”

This statement is characteristic of his seminars, with the goal to share researched information and aid in forming logical opinions.

If you missed this presentation, not to fear. Jenkinson will be back this summer to discuss gun control and Native American history. If you’d like to access his previous debates and discussions, recordings are available on the Vail Symposium website.

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