American colleges have long been bastions of learning and growth, where thoughts and ideas are imparted, debated and strengthened. It's only natural that academia gets tied up with politics, where many of our philosophical ideals meet their practical applications.
Donald Trump is unpopular with young people and the college educated, so it is little surprise that supporters of our current president feel outnumbered in many classrooms and college greens. What is surprising and disappointing, however, is the anger and violence that have erupted against those who have professed their support.
Right-wing media gleefully runs video of the anarchists mobs that gathered in Berkeley and at Evergreen College to protest right-wing speakers (some, white supremacist and neo-Nazi, others merely conservative Republicans), offering it as proof that the left has gone loony. Recent polling data have shown that an increasing number of millennials — in a recent Pew Study it was 40 percent — believe that speech should be restricted to prevent people from saying offensive things about minority groups.
College presidents know the stakes. They know that their campus is always one incident away from online infamy. Or that an incident a thousand miles away, propelled by social media, may end up in protests on their doorstep in a matter of hours.
The presidents of Eastern Oregon University and Oregon State University, as well as University of Oregon vice president for student services Roger J. Thompson, gathered in Pendleton last month. It was purportedly for the Pendleton Round-Up, but we've always thought they come every September to chat with the East Oregonian editorial board.
This year, the conversation turned to issues of free speech, and how their campuses are supporting the foundation on which higher education is built.
Each said they have updated policies and procedures, and have tried to engage and challenge students during orientation — as soon as they arrive on campus.
"We all hear about how higher education is coddling," said Eastern Oregon University president Tom Insko. "At EOU we're not looking to coddle our students ... we want to create a safe environment for you to face these challenging issues head on."
Oregon State University President Ed Ray said his school has also increased discussion.
"You need to be able to engage in conversation that may make you uncomfortable," said Ray. "That's how you harden and develop your own ideas, and learn how to in fact speak up against things that are awful." He said it's worth remembering that "whoever is offended has a right to speak also. And they need to know how to do it, and they need to know how to do it in a civil way."
Thompson said the University of Oregon also has its eye on the free speech/hate speech spectrum. He believes that students — and young people in general — should get more credit than they do. He doesn't see coddled kids wanting protection, he sees young people that want to be involved, invested and committed to improving their lives and communities.
"I see kids that are connected, that want to make a difference ... and they've done it high school already," he said. "They're kind of questioning the gray-haired folks in the room, looking around and wondering 'What kind of world are you leaving us?'"
As newspaper editors, we are by definition supportive of First Amendment and free speech. We are also supportive of the kind of debate required to strengthen that support in others.