As a new class of freshmen settles into life on campus, I have been thinking about warning labels. We see them everywhere, on all kinds of products, and the tendency to ignore them is pervasive. Yet they can be useful, even essential—think of the labels on medications that warn against dangerous drug combinations.
Higher education is engaged in a complex series of conversations that include consideration of what may be appropriate warnings and disclosures. These include content warnings for courses, expectations around campus culture, the meaning and limits of academic freedom, and the potential friction between free speech and civility.
I have been considering, and ask the members of the URI community to consider, what kind of disclosure or warning label might be consistent with both our shared values, and our identity as a public research institution.
Now, I’m not talking about things like: “The traffic coming to URI at 8:30 a.m. Monday to Friday can remind you of Boston”; or “The coldest part of campus in the spring is the baseball field if there’s a home game”; or “Multiple showers required after ooze ball”; or “Faculty Senate meetings can be a bit tedious, especially if the President speaks.” These facts are useful but well known.
I am thinking about the distinction between our ideal—that every member of our community should feel welcomed, affirmed, supported, and respected—and the notion that we should feel “comfortable” here at all times. When I was a young faculty member at Amherst College, our president at the time, G. Armour Craig, gave a commencement speech in which he critiqued the idea that the statement, “I’m comfortable with that,” constituted a sound basis for decisions. He asserted, if memory serves accurately, that there will be times in which the best decision for the college and its students may well be one that makes at least some members of the community distinctly uncomfortable. Perhaps the right decision would encompass something new, or challenging, or entail some risk, or simply be a departure from the then-current, tacit assumptions widely shared across the campus.
President Craig was right. Comfort may be the best criterion to use when securing an airline seat or selecting a mattress, but it could be misleading, inappropriate, or damaging if preferentially applied to the kinds of decisions frequently made at the University of Rhode Island. We must be especially cautious if the comfort standard reflects compatibility with our own social, political, philosophical, or religious views. URI is a diverse community whose members hold widely varying views, so seeking outcomes where everyone is comfortable at all times would lead to paralysis. More importantly, it is a mistake for any individual, or group of like-minded individuals, to believe that they have a monopoly on the truth. History teaches otherwise.
In fact, one of the best attributes of a university is that it can, and should, be a place where ideas, assumptions, and worldviews are challenged and examined in an environment that is supportive and encouraging. After all, we are not aiming for comfort any more than we are aiming for its opposite. We are aiming for truth.
So, perhaps the warning label for URI should read something like:
CAUTION Joining the University of Rhode Island community may cause occasional mild to significant discomfort. Faculty members and fellow students may challenge your ideas and beliefs. You will be expected to respectfully challenge theirs, which may cause additional discomfort. You will also live and learn with people who are very different than you, which may lead to occasional mild anxiety. Do not be alarmed; such feelings are normal. Assistance will be provided by your advisor, resident academic mentor (RAM), RA, instructors, friends, and other members of the community. And remember, these experiences will help prepare you for success upon graduation.
David M. Dooley