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At Drexel, a place for tolerance and acceptance

James D. Herbert is a professor of psychology, executive vice provost, and dean of the Graduate College at Drexel University

James D. Herbert

is a professor of psychology, executive vice provost, and dean of the Graduate College at Drexel University

It's my hope that students who are exploring their gender identity will feel at ease everywhere at Drexel University, but there's at least one place I'm certain they will.

In the ground floor of Drexel's student center, a single green door posted with welcome messages leads to the LGBTQA Student Center. The room serves as the setting for chats over coffee and tea among students, presentations by guest speakers, and a space where the watchwords are tolerance and acceptance. It's one of many such spaces on campus where people gather to explore their common ground.

Drexel is not alone in carving out such spaces. In fact, these settings are selling points for many colleges and universities - signaling their wise commitment to embrace diversity.

But in our eagerness to provide comfort zones, I see a problem developing: Are we shielding students from one of the core benefits of a university education?

As far back as ancient Greece, the philosopher Thales of Miletus promoted the idea of critical dialogue as a guide to truth, a notion subsequently reinforced by Plato and Aristotle.

The modern university is rooted in the Enlightenment ideal of the open exchange of ideas. It can only function well when it fosters a robust marketplace of ideas, where frank discussions and vigorous debate are encouraged, where bad ideas are met with better ideas rather than censorship.

That sets up a natural tension. At a minimum, feelings can get hurt.

It puts academia at a crossroads, attempting to balance two ideals that can conflict: the commitment to the open expression of ideas without fear of censorship and the effort to ensure that all voices are welcomed and can be heard.

The commitment to total and unfettered freedom of expression runs the risk of favoring those with the loudest voices and the tallest soap boxes. On the other hand, any effort at censorship - no matter how well-intentioned or restrained - runs the risk of favoring one perspective over another. It begs the question of whose perspective will be privileged, and who makes that decision.

In recent years, in an effort to ensure that their perspective is heard, some students have demanded that others with whom they disagree be silenced. With noble intentions, these students argue for university-sanctioned "safe spaces" in which ideas with which they disagree, or even that make them uncomfortable, are prohibited. Indeed, some insist that such a safe zone should encompass the entire campus.

At universities across the country, including the University of Minnesota and the University of Pennsylvania, public forums with visiting dignitaries have been disrupted by student protesters. At Haverford College and elsewhere, students have demanded the disinvitation of commencement speakers who espoused ideas with which they disagreed. At Emory, students demanded punishment for those who wrote Donald Trump's name in chalk on campus sidewalks, claiming this made them feel "unsafe."

Efforts to control speech on campus, justified by appeal to some higher good, are not new. Speech codes were promoted by universities themselves, and it was students who fought them, most notoriously beginning at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964. But today, the calls to curtail speech emanate from students. That is new.

Fully armed with the expectation that they should not be made to feel uncomfortable, some students insist on punishment of perceived transgressors in a way that is having a chilling effect. Consider: A colleague at another university, a psychology professor with a strong record of promoting LGBTQA rights, recently recounted how he was subjected to an intense investigation for more than a month by his university when a student accused him of homophobia. The incident stemmed from the student's misunderstanding the point of a video shown in class illustrating a well-established phenomenon in social psychology concerning moral reasoning.

Accommodation to such demands has the pernicious effect of promoting a narrative of victimhood, in which students are seen as emotionally fragile, easily traumatized, and in need of protection from ideas that are hurtful or make them uncomfortable.

Regardless of the cause, the attacks on free expression have now reached a tipping point: They threaten the academy's very essence. By failing to address these issues thoughtfully and proactively, we risk two problematic scenarios. The first is a continued erosion of ideological diversity in the marketplace of ideas by ever-increasing demands to avoid discomfort above all else. But the second is a backlash in which even carefully considered efforts to regulate the most extreme and hateful speech are left unchecked, and in which marginalized voices remain unheard.

Universities must encourage students to step outside their comfort zones, outside their social-media echo chambers, to consider thoughtfully the full spectrum of ideas. We must highlight the value of actively seeking out and considering ideas that run counter to one's established intuitions and beliefs. We must emphasize the importance of countering bad ideas with better ideas rather than censorship. We must stop patronizingly treating students as fragile children, but rather instill the expectation that they are capable of fully engaging with ideas, including those that are uncomfortable or even painful. And we must inculcate these critical values and practices in our students not merely by lecture, but by practicing them ourselves.

In doing this, we are taking steps to ensure that the space outside of that green door is an exhilarating and enlightening experience.