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How refusing to listen to other voices can harm us all

May 5, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
As an African-American female scientist and president of Trinity College, Joanne Berger-Sweeney says she’s heard and been the target of a lot of hurtful talk. Yet, as colleges and universities are criticized for seeming to stifle speech and thought, she sees exposing students to different perspectives and helping them bridge divides as her most important work. Berger-Sweeney offers her humble opinion.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally: We are headed into commencement season, and each week seems to bring a new fight over whose ideas should be heard.

Tonight, Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney shares her Humble Opinion that universities are exactly the place for these difficult conversations.

Have a listen.

JOANNE BERGER-SWEENEY, President, Trinity College: These days, you can’t miss the criticism aimed at higher education.

We hear it: We’re a bunch of intolerant elites. Our students are precious snowflakes. As educators, we’re stifling speech and thought, and we’re not preparing students for the real world.

Frankly, I get it. Lately, some campus protests around the country have gone awry in truly ugly ways. Now it’s commencement season. Are controversial speakers going to be uninvited and ceremonies halted by protests?

If so, all of us in higher education should be ashamed. It’s our job as educators to uphold free speech and to teach the responsibilities that come with that freedom. And, yes, we must provide safe spaces, spaces that are safe for speech, not from it.

But it seems more than ever that we’re just refusing to hear one another. Maybe that’s because listening to the other side can hurt. Let me tell you, as an African-American woman, I have heard it all, and a lot of it has hurt.

I didn’t have to agree with it, like when I was told a black girl couldn’t be a scientist, but I didn’t have the option of not hearing it. And now I’m the first woman, the first person of color, the first neuroscientist to be president of Trinity College.

But guess what? I’m not representing just African-Americans, or women, or neuroscientists. I’m representing Trinity College, a community with a variety of points of view.

I have to be true to myself, but I can’t be a responsible leader without teaching students this important lesson: Silencing voices and refusing to listen harms us all.

That’s why, for my first commencement as president in 2015, I awarded honorary degrees to both a retired Air Force general and a renowned peace advocate.

And that’s why, this year, we will hear a commencement speech from philosopher Daniel Dennett, a well-known atheist, beside the statue of our founding president, an Episcopalian bishop, exposing students to different perspectives and helping them bridge divides.

This work is deeply personal to me. It may be the most important work I will do as president. When we teach students how to analyze an opposing argument and sharpen their own, how to relate across differences, how to listen and be heard, we are preparing our students for the real world. In fact, we’re giving them the tools to make our world a lot better.

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