Conn College president wants leaders, not 'snowflakes'

Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron doesn’t want her students dismissed as “snowflakes,” a derisive term coined by conservatives who see students at elite liberal arts schools as so ideologically fragile as being unwilling to even listen to ideas that contest their liberal precepts.

While she sees the “country’s deeply complex racial history, inequality, income distribution” as the social issues that concern much of the college’s student body — matters certainly more associated with the liberal agenda — Bergeron said her administration strives to provide an environment in which those priorities and how to address them can be challenged.

“They can be the generation that finds some new ways forward,” said Bergeron, when meeting with The Day Editorial Board on Thursday. “You can’t do that if you don’t actually push at all the questions and if you don’t have people pushing back.”

Campuses across the country have seen instances in which planned presentations by conservative speakers were canceled because protesters loudly criticized the institutions for allowing the airing of ideas the liberal activists considered unacceptable. Instead it is that attitude — closing one’s mind to alternative views — that is unacceptable.

Conn College does not want to produce future leaders who will melt when they find their cultural and political concepts are challenged, said the college president, but instead leaders who have had their ideas shaped, solidified and clarified in the heat of debate and the trials posed by reality.

“So it’s actually the opposite of a snowflake. We want them to come out as crystals,” Bergeron said.

Conn College has not had an incident in which a speaker was disinvited because of their views, she said. But Bergeron said she is sensitive to the possibility of future problems, with emotions on both sides of the ideological divide ratcheted up.

“These are incidences of increasing frequency ... and virulence,” she said of the clashes, sometimes physical, between opposing groups. “Our first concern is always going to be the safety of our students. Charlottesville is putting all institutions of our type on alert.”

Could fear of “virulence” provide the excuse for banning a speaker considered too far outside the college’s cultural and ideological comfort zone? Hopefully not.

As evidence the college in New London welcomes the clash of ideas, she pointed to a debate last academic year between student groups representing Republican and Democratic agendas.

“The house was packed and I think that it was intense, but civil and that’s what we want to promote. We want our students to find those spaces where they can feel empowered to speak in ways that actually respect the dignity of everyone around them,” said Bergeron.

I hope to hear about the next one of those. It sounds interesting.

Under John F. McKnight Jr., dean of institutional equity and inclusion (now there’s a title snowflake labelers will seize upon), Bergeron said the college wants to formalize the goal of inviting competing ideas. It’s part of the strategic plan.

“The idea is an ‘Institute for leadership, dialogue and the new diplomacy,’” said Bergeron, adding with a laugh. “It’s a working title.”

“We are going to have to learn to talk to each other across more and more divided, polarized communities,” Bergeron said of the goal of the still conceptual institute.

In a sense, Conn College students are obligated to treat with respect those who express opinions with which they disagree. They signed a pledge.

“I pledge to take responsibility for my beliefs, and to conduct myself with integrity, civility, and the utmost respect for the dignity of all human beings,” it reads in part.

We’d all do well to live by those words.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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