The decision by College Council (CC) to incorporate Uncomfortable Learning (UL) as a CC and Office of Student Life-recognized student organization (RSO) is a good first step towards making UL a productive part of campus discourse.
At its inception, UL had the potential to be a positive force of learning on campus. However, its invitations of Suzanne Venker and John Derbyshire last year, as well as qualms about anonymous funding, damaged the organization’s reputation. By last spring, UL was not contributing positively to the College’s academic or social environment. Through its decision to limit the ability to bring speakers on campus to RSOs, the College steered UL towards playing a productive role on campus.
Despite previous controversy, UL has the potential to promote meaningful campus discourse. The group’s original intent was to cut against the College’s perceived orthodoxy on political and social issues — an important goal. UL should follow this model by bringing in speakers whose views are not normally expressed on campus to foster conversations. Many speakers with well-founded, evidence-backed opinions that challenge us to think differently have important things to teach us.
In order for UL to play this positive role on campus, CC oversight is crucial. Most importantly, being an RSO prevents UL from soliciting and receiving anonymous donations. As an RSO, UL will also be held to CC regulations, which state that speakers will be met with approval or disapproval based on “perceived value to the community,” as stated in its bylaws. CC should ensure that it follows this standard, rather than sanction or threaten UL based on its representatives’ biases and prejudices.
It is also imperative that UL changes internally. As a two-member organization under the same leadership as last year, UL currently fails to capture an important range of voices across campus, despite the club’s mission to provide a platform for less-heard opinions. At the outset, UL should publish its meeting times and locations. Last year, UL leaders stated that the organization was open but did not offer this information. If those leaders hope that UL will play a positive role on campus and be well-regarded by the College community, UL must host meetings that are truly open and encourage the community to come – beyond the initial open interest meeting they are required to hold as an RSO. CC can and should play a role in encouraging increased UL membership by requiring that UL publish its meeting times. And, if membership does not increase, it is important that CC factor the club’s small size into its funding considerations.
In that vein, UL should send out an all-student survey encouraging the community to submit ideas for speakers. This way, students who might not feel comfortable in the environment of the club can still provide their opinions. There is no reason not to crowdsource brainstorming; doing so would benefit both UL and the community. The organization should also publish its constitution and bylaws so that the student body can understand the process by which it chooses its speakers. UL should also elucidate how its board is structured and how interested students can get involved.
Finally, students who are comfortable doing so have a responsibility to get involved with UL. Those students for whom UL is a safe space have the most responsibility of all: It is up to them to sit in the organization’s meetings, suggest speakers and raise their voices if other members propose speakers who might not add value to the discourse on campus. Those who show up will make decisions; if UL offers the chance to contribute, take it.
For good reason, public trust in UL has eroded. If its leaders hope to rebrand the organization, they could consider starting a new group with a name not associated with past controversies at the College. If UL is insistent on keeping its name, however, the foundation of the organization beneath it must still change.
UL’s original aim was to provide opposing viewpoints critical to a full education at the College. Going against the grain is not easy, and this was a bold and important goal. The subsequent warping of the organization into a mouthpiece for incendiary speakers lacking substance was a loss for UL and for the student body. At a college, however, where the student population turns over every four years, very little is irreversible. To the leaders of UL, we implore you: When you pick up your work again this spring and onward, work for this community, not against it.