Interactive Panelists Discuss Campus Discourse At Freedom & Learning Forum

Interactive Panelists Discuss Campus Discourse At Freedom & Learning Forum
Photo By (Jackie Reed/SAIL).

FAIRFAX, VA | November 20, 2017 

George Mason University hosted the Freedom & Learning Forum on Wednesday, November 15. It was a conversation between faculty and students that identified the current climate of speech freedoms and campus safety.

President Ángel Cabrera opened up the forum, explaining how easy it is to congregate in “echo-chambers” - personal circles of people that validate stances, reaffirm opinions, and reassure decisions. Because of the fond nature of this, dialogues lacking in diversity instill ignorant perceptions, which can prompt bigotry, controversy, and violence.

And toxic conversation is not limited to public sectors on campus. These ramifications span to students’ personal spaces too - think dorm rooms, residential halls, classrooms, study spaces, and social circles.

Dr. Rita Chi-Ying Chung, professor in the Counseling & Development program in the College of Education and Human Development, moderated the discussion. Her experience in researching cultural psychology, human rights, and immigration trauma prepared her to run the discussion with effectivity and timeliness. Fellow panelists shared insights that are most considerable when expressing First Amendment rights on campus.

Paula Alderete on engaging with an open mind

“We need ideas that challenge us,” Paula Alderete added. Alderete is a junior at George Mason and is the external president of Mason DREAMers, an organization that highlights initiatives advocating for undocumented students. She thinks that having patience and showing respect is important in hostile conversations, even when it is not being reciprocated back.

Bassam Haddad on accountability and continuity

Bassam Haddad is the director of the Middle East Studies program and is a professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government. Notably, he is also an author and a visiting professor at Georgetown University. Based on his immense knowledge and understanding of hostility in the Middle East, he believes that having free speech is an unconscious privilege. “We cannot flatten discourse”, he said. “We ourselves cannot be an echo-chamber.” Expanding on the forum’s takeaways can mean furthering them in future speeches and endeavors.

Amber Hampton on university transparency

Amber Hampton is the interim director of the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education (ODIME), which strives to embrace inclusivity throughout George Mason’s many environments. Hampton clarified that “hate comes from ignorance and a lack of context.” In order to foster healthy conversation, George Mason should set guidelines that redefines proactive dialogue. This requires accountability and convergence between student offices and campus resources.

Patricia Maulden on listening attentively

Patricia Maulden said “park your ego in the car” - a comical yet honest anecdote, notably applicable to upcoming holiday dinners and on campus climates all year round. Maulden is an associate professor in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and director of the Dialogue & Difference Project. She explained that listening and making an effort to understand is key to fluidity and civility in social discourse.

Christian Suero on tailoring the freedom of speech

Christian Suero mentioned that students should “have the ability to express, not the right to oppress.” As a graduate student in sociology and the resident director for George Mason’s Housing and Residence Life, Suero insists that students can freely embrace their beliefs, but that should not act as an excuse to deface people who believe otherwise. “We are all human, and we all experience life differently,” he added. Talking to one another requires honesty and respect.

Dr. Susan Lawrence, a professor in the Writing & Rhetoric programs and director of George Mason’s Writing Center, was one of the participants in the small group sessions thereafter. Lawrence encourages students to be fearless in embracing beliefs. Shaki Sulamain, a senior and communications student at George Mason, used his study experiences to vouch for the vitality of professor moderation in class dynamics - these are active learning spaces, where peers should speak out and feel comfortable doing so. Faculty has great ability in swaying student empowerment, and having that power necessitates awareness, reliability, and recognizing the biases that might keep students silent.

The question remains: how do we create those safe spaces where all students are able to express themselves?

George Mason University continues to pride itself as a diverse community. With the distinguished factor of being a multicultural university, it is eminent for students and faculty to share opinions proactively and with complete respect.