Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Recent violent protests at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and the University of California, Berkeley, have sparked concern at the University of Iowa about how the university should respond to issues of free speech on campus. Among numerous efforts by separate campus groups, Paul Bellus, director of youth programs in the Office of the Provost, has worked with the A. Craig Baird Debate Forum to organize a speaker series on modern political controversies. His aim is to model constructive dialogue about tense issues.

“Every community we belong to is governed by and through debate,” says Bellus. “With the spread of ‘trolling’ and a growing lack of civility in public discourse, the series hopes to showcase the value of free speech conducted in a respectful manner.”

This article is the first of several that will appear in Iowa Now addressing efforts made by campus groups to engage with issues related free speech at the UI.

Bellus says all the speakers in the A. Craig Baird Forum on Contemporary Politics and Society formally participated in collegiate debate, making them well trained in the art of disagreeing agreeably with someone while still vigorously challenging that person’s assumptions.

“You should force yourself to articulate what the other side’s argument is,” says Colin Kahl, the first speaker in the series, when describing how to have constructive dialogue. “Understand that they’re coming to an issue from a different perspective, and force yourself to walk a mile in their argument’s shoes…Then you’re in a much better position, rhetorically, to criticize (their argument).”

The speaker series launched Sept. 18 with Kahl, former senior adviser to former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on all matters related to U.S. foreign policy and national security.

Kahl spoke with Brian Lai, associate professor in the UI Department of Political Science, on the topic “U.S. Foreign Policy Moving Forward” and analyzed the differences in foreign policy between President Donald Trump and former presidents Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush.

Kahl also says that another strategy for holding civil discourse is “recognizing uncertainty—recognizing that nobody has all the answers.” He says calling attention to the imperfections in one’s own argument “is both the fair thing to do because all sides make mistakes, (and) also the persuasive thing to do.”

The next speaker in the series will be Corey Rayburn Yung, a law professor at the University of Kansas whose research has been cited in federal and state courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court in Kennedy v. Louisiana. In April 2018, Yung will visit campus to speak on the topic “Title IX and Campus Politics.”

Other speakers in the series will address the topics “The Politics of Aging in America” and “U.S. Energy Policy in the 21st Century.” Bellus says he hopes the series will become ongoing and feature at least one speaker per semester.

“This is one way we fulfill our promise to our students,” says Lon Moeller, associate provost for undergraduate education and dean of University College. “Good arguments don’t change your mind—they give you new perspective. The value of the university is partly that we hear from experiences and perspectives that are different from our own.”