Freedom and Learning Forum encourages speaking out about speaking up

Student panelists Paula Alderte and Christian Suero at the Freedom and Learning forum

Student panelists Paula Alderte and Christian Suero speak at the Freedom and Learning Forum on Nov. 15, 2017. The forum was hosted by President Ángel Cabrera, University Life, the Doing What Matters committee, and the LEAD Office. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

How can students, faculty and George Mason University facilitate discussions that are fraught because of sharp differences of opinion, and how can all parties feel safe to express their views?

Those were the central questions for those attending the Freedom and Learning Forum in Dewberry Hall on the Fairfax Campus on Nov. 15.

George Mason President Ángel Cabrera opened the dialogue by noting that the same technology that connects us also has the potential to keep us siloed.

“In today’s society we have found our echo chambers,” Cabrera said. “We find people like us, and we engage in conversations only with people like us who reaffirm our beliefs, as opposed to reaching out to people who challenge our beliefs.”

“It is vital our universities don’t become anyone’s echo chamber,” he said. “A university campus must be a space where we are exposed to a wealth of diverse ideas, views and perspectives. We know that makes us grow.”

Forum panelists included Paula Alderete, a junior global affairs major and external president of Mason DREAMers; Bassam Haddad, director of George Mason’s Middle East Studies Program; Amber Hampton, interim director of Mason’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Multicultural Education; Patricia Maulden, associate professor in the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution; and Christian Suero, a doctoral student of sociology and a resident director in Mason’s office of Housing and Residence Life.

Attendees also broke into small discussion groups, and a Q&A session closed the forum, which was hosted by the Office of the President, University Life, Leadership Education and Development, and the Doing What Matters committee.

Alderete said productive discussions require individuals to always be civil and engage with an open mind. But one should also critique what one hears, she said. Maulden said she sometimes in class will give an opinion she knows is unpopular to create an opening for classroom dialogue.

Hampton offered that the university should set guidelines and expectations for how discussions should be conducted, which Suero agreed could level the playing field.

“Some people believe the ability to express your rights looks the same as having the right to oppress,” he said. “That’s the challenge we need to address. Yes, you have the ability to express your rights, but you don’t have the right to oppress based on life experiences.”

Students at the forum said they were pleased with what they heard.

“It gave me hope to know that there are conversations like this taking place on campus, that there are faculty members wrangling with a lot of the issues I, as a student, am struggling with,” said Anaam Avant, a senior conflict analysis and resolution major. “For me, as a student, that was valuable.”

“It’s the beginning of being responsive to this question that is more and more significant on college campuses,” said Rose Pascarell, vice president for University Life. “With this commitment to freedom of expression comes the responsibility to really continue to grow in the image of the community. How do we do that?”

The consensus at the forum was that Mason is doing a good job encouraging all voices to be heard, though Haddad said the university must stay committed as challenges grow.

“There are voices out there that, if they are not allowed to speak on campus because people are afraid, they are going to manifest themselves in ways that are not productive,” he said. “So I’m open to pushing the envelope with strong leadership within the university to handle the unknown.”