Your Comfort is Our Priority

Ashley Thorne

Davidson College Dean of Faculty Clark Ross recently emailed the department chairs a message about “Building Community.” He asked the chairs to do their part in advancing two “College-wide objectives” as part of Davidson’s efforts to be “inclusive.” The first goal, Ross wrote, is to have greater diversity in candidate pools for faculty positions.

The second goal is more curious. It is “to create classroom environments that are comfortable for all students” [emphasis added]. Ross adds, “Despite our efforts, there are circumstances and incidents where students can be offended, sometimes by faculty comment or other times by perceived attitude of those in the classroom” [emphasis added].

Should colleges aim to make the classroom comfortable for all students? Perhaps in some senses. Students should feel the freedom to voice their beliefs and ideas when appropriate, knowing that their professors value open inquiry and freedom of speech. Students should not have to fear censorship or discrimination for their views. But there are other kinds of comfort to which students do not have a right:

  • The comfort of having strictly politically correct professors
  • The comfort of never having your beliefs challenged
  • The comfort of never being called on in class when you haven’t done the reading
  • The comfort of passing the course no matter what level of work you put in

Contrary to what some people believe, students are not customers. Yes, they and their families are paying tuition, but education isn’t a product, and while it may be that the customer is always right, the student isn’t.

And why has Davidson made it a goal to prevent any student from ever taking offense at anything? As Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) puts it, “If you make it through college without ever having been offended, you should ask for your money back.” In other words, in college, there is no right not to be offended.

Ross closes his email in the hope that the chairs can meet “to discuss this issue and to consider ways that we might increase the vigilance, sensitivity, and concern that each of us brings to the classroom and to our interactions with others.” Jay Schalin notes the ominous overtones in this vigilance to “perceived attitudes.”

An irony in Ross’s letter is that his vision of inclusivity means excluding certain ideas that may be valuable for students to hear but that don’t fit narrowly defined sensitivity standards. Ross says he expects cooperation from the department chairs: “With our collective effort, we can make the Davidson College community even stronger, more inclusive, and more caring.” But as long as Davidson administrators bend over backwards to avoid offending anyone, they will actually make the college weaker, more exclusive, and less caring about the things that matter.

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