On the day I received a call that my 22-year-old brother was coming home from the hospital (with nothing more doctors could do for his cancer) I was standing in the computer lab at the University of Illinois. The only other person in the room was my lesbian classmate, Adrienne.
Noticing something was wrong, she came to me inquisitively — and I broke down sobbing in her arms. I’m a religious guy from Utah. But in that moment, it didn’t matter that we held different conceptions of God, the universe or even our own identities. As important as all those questions are, something else mattered more.
We seem to be forgetting that in higher education today — there is something beautiful, solid and strong beneath all the ideological differences — something we can depend on, something that connects us all, and something that is arguably more essential than our many important disagreements about how the world works (or should work).
Namely, we’re forgetting our common humanity — or as people of faith would say, our relationships as a common family of brothers and sisters, no matter our demographic or philosophical differences. In practical terms, these relationships undercut the accusations of malevolent motives all around us today. What if thoughtful, good-hearted people really did disagree on just about everything? And what if our political opposites really did go home and tuck their kids into bed (if they have kids) — and want the best for this country just as much as we do?
That may sound hard to believe these days. But I believe we forget it at our peril.
After my brother Sam passed away a week later, I was surrounded by a profound level of love and consolation from a cohort of very liberal academics. Over the years ahead, I found inspiration in Dr. Nicole Allen’s impassioned work to fight domestic violence. I was transfixed by an African American professor, Jocelyn-Landrum Brown, who introduced me to dialogue as another way to bring liberal and conservative people together. And my life was changed forever when Dr. Wendy Heller not only sent me to a mindfulness conference but welcomed me into her home to feel the love of her partner and daughter when I needed it the most.
This is the point in the story where some would expect me to say, “and that’s when I eventually realized how off-based and oppressive my religious upbringing really was ...”
But I don’t believe that. Even with so much good I took away from progressive classmates and professors, nothing I have experienced has led me to feel a desire or need to abandon precious things in my faith as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On the contrary, time and time again I’ve found the teachings of Jesus providing crucial clarity on the thorniest of questions I’ve studied — violence, depression and sexuality.
And when I’ve raised my voice to share my perspective, I’ve also found colleagues surprisingly willing to hear me out. During one diversity seminar where opposition to gay marriage was equated with bigotry, I raised my hand and clarified, “it’s not just because of the Bible that my faith community has concerns. And it also doesn’t come from hatred or disgust — not for me. The traditional family for us is not a relic of a certain age of history. It’s a living reflection of who we understand God to be, in our relationship to them as children of heavenly parents. So, for us, marriage and family are the places we become more like them, which is core to how we see our own identity.”
No one attacked me. The room was silent. And I felt heard. After the meeting ended, one of my classmates found me in the hall and said, “Thanks for sharing that. While I still don’t agree with you ... that did help me understand why you believe what you do.”
On many other occasions, I came away with an expanded understanding of classmates’ concerns with race, sexuality, climate change and many other issues. All so valuable for me.
And it’s precisely that — the opportunity to hear each other out in what we find good, beautiful, and true that I find most wonderful about the academy — which is precisely what feels so much under threat today.
Recently, a Brigham Young University posting on an online site run by a scientific institution was protested and then eventually rejected, due to accusations of bigotry connected to teachings in the Church of Jesus Christ about sexuality. Was anyone really surprised, though? These kinds of incidents have been increasing for years across the country, and are certainly not unique to BYU. I’ve heard many stories of not only religious conservative students and professors — but also moderately progressive ones — being censored, smeared, protested, bullied, fired, or never considered for faculty positions or graduate study.
This is frightening. And it makes my heart sad — mostly because it was such a contrast to my experience in Champaign-Urbana.
There’s plenty of reason to be hopeful though, too. As illiberal impulses have grown across American campuses, a diverse coalition of more than 3,500 professors, administrators and graduate students have gathered to remind the nation we can still do this. Started in 2015 by Dr. Jonathan Haidt from New York University (and author of “The Righteous Mind”), Heterodox Academy is now led by a wide spectrum of thoughtful scholars, including Jeffrey Flier, a former dean at Harvard Medical School.
Far from a narrow-minded enclave of retrograde thinkers trying to protect the status quo, many of these researchers are agnostic, atheist and solidly progressive in their outlooks. What unites them is concern that the space for ideological diversity is shrinking in the academy — the very place where we should be encouraging it the most.
I’ve attended the Heterodox Academy conference for the past two years, and it’s been among the most hopeful and uplifting experiences of my life (check out videos from both conferences here). The spirit of Plato’s Greek academy is alive and well there, even if it’s ailing elsewhere. With the encouragement of Heterodox Academy and the Village Square, Liz Joyner and I launched a project two years ago that we called “Respect + Rebellion” (with a “BYU + Berkeley” component) to see what would happen if students could see one, real-life example of healthy socio-political disagreement.
After putting pairs of “unorthodox friendships” in front of 3,000 students on campuses that included Duke, UC Berkeley, Texas A&M, Colorado State, University of Utah, and BYU, we’ve found 83% of participants reporting that they come away “more optimistic about conversing with people whose political views are different than my own” and 78% feeling like it was “more possible that I could learn something from people on the other side of the aisle.” One student told us “it’s refreshing to know that real dialogue is still even possible.”
It is! But we need to do so much more to preserve and fight for that space. If it becomes taken for granted that an individual or school holding an orthodox biblical ethic of sexuality (whether Latter-day Saint, Baptist or Catholic) is inherently hateful and bigoted — and therefore undeserving of an “equal seat at the table” as critics recently alleged about BYU — we’ve entered dangerous territory.
This is not simply about religious freedom, but about basic academic freedom too — for both individual students and faculty, and for the institutions of higher education themselves — to be able to dictate a future course that aligns with their deepest and most cherished convictions.
Isn’t that what we all need space and freedom to do? And, of course, when these personal convictions conflict — all the more need to preserve space for forthright deliberation and contestation. Do any of us really think tactics to bully opponents into silence will lead to the future society we want?
When these illiberal impulses arise, it’s time to not only unite in opposition, but also to proactively preserve and celebrate the beautiful, beating heart of the academy: the space to bring vibrant disagreements right out into the open — on purpose — in order to pursue greater truth together, free from wearying insinuations of malevolence or bad faith.
That kind of an educational experience is truly precious, and changed my life in so many positive ways. Let’s make sure that will be true for many more students to come.
Jacob Hess serves on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has a Ph.D. in clinical-community psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Editor’s note: This commentary was originally published in Public Square Magazine.