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Opinion: UCLA must do more to promote open discussion, debate in classrooms

Students sit in a lecture hall. Classrooms like these must find a way to balance their duty to protect with their responsibility to inform. (Anya Yakimenko/Daily Bruin staff)

By Danielle Taylor

Sept. 16, 2022 10:29 a.m.

On a warm morning in July, I was sipping my iced latte while absentmindedly scrolling through the Apple News app when a particular story – entitled “UCLA professor quits job” – caught my eye.

I was confused as to how a resignation merited national media coverage until I clicked and read the blog post written by the retiring professor, Joseph Manson.

The post described his reasons for leaving the university – namely that UCLA and other liberal institutions have become “morally and intellectually corrupt.” He named a long list of UCLA teaching faculty who he believes were wrongly ostracized or fired for their controversial stances.

He ends the post by suggesting that universities like UCLA have rejected the two values which made higher learning great in the 20th century: meritocracy and free debate.

As I finished reading, my very first thought was, “Ha! As though universities in any century of American history were meritocratic!”

The great American meritocracy is a fallacy. As a Black student, I’ve both witnessed and experienced the difficulties that disenfranchised students face when navigating academic spaces such as teacher bias, inequitable access to resources and stereotype threat. This perpetuates an uneven playing field for accessing and thriving in education.

The disparities only become wider as one advances in their educational career.

As I continued to sip my latte and let Manson’s words sink in, I was forced to acknowledge that there is a glimmer of truth in his second critique: Free debate in higher education is being compromised.

Looking back on my first year at UCLA, one of the things that I struggled with was that any brewing controversy about hot-button political issues – actually, any topic deeper than a student’s preferred ice cream flavor – was often avoided by the professor.

At UCLA and many other liberal institutions, there is a long list of taboo topics that very few faculty members allow students to debate.

UCLA has enforced a one-perspective-fits-all policy for these areas of discussion, which leaves many community members feeling unheard. It serves no one for students to sit in a classroom and pretend we all agree on every controversial topic.

One topic which often falls under the taboo umbrella is interracial dynamics. I’ve noticed that many members of the teaching faculty particularly shy away from this subject and won’t even allow for discussion, much less debate.

A student in one of my classes proposed the question, “How come Black people and Asian people haven’t historically gotten along?” and was immediately shut down by the professor. Ironically, this was in a class dedicated to race relations. I can only imagine how often this must occur at UCLA.

It is always frustrating to me when that happens because I want to know what my peers truly believe. The more I thought about it, the more I understood why most professors prevent candid debates.

I think it often boils down to a few things.

First, it appears that the teaching faculty in most schools are generally ill-equipped to handle these conversations.

At my very liberal, predominantly white high school, a teacher conducted a “silent discussion” about racial inequality. Instead of speaking aloud, we were instructed to write our comments one at a time on a whiteboard. I believe the teacher thought it would be the best way to avoid offensive microaggressions, but it actually led to a series of misunderstandings that could have been avoided by speaking.

Similarly, by preventing and bubble-wrapping discussions, UCLA professors are often perpetuating more misunderstanding.

It is also evident that the teaching faculty genuinely want to protect marginalized students – however, they may not know the proper way to do so.

One of the professors mentioned in Manson’s post, Val Rust, was disciplined by UCLA for race-based discrimination during his lectures. An incident he came under fire for was allowing a discussion between a student of color and a white female student on whether white women are an oppressed group. The professor said, “I likely did not handle the situation well, because I chose not to stop the discussion between them, so it went on for quite a while, and the students of color apparently interpreted my silence to mean I wasn’t supporting them.”

Teaching faculty should unequivocally be held accountable for discrimination. However, whether Rust was in the wrong for this particular incident is not so clear. Personally, I would gladly debate that topic, but I recognize that not every student of color would. For every controversial topic, some will welcome a debate and some won’t.

Liberal institutions must find a way to balance their duty to protect with their responsibility to inform.

I don’t have all the answers, but I’m sure that on a campus full of brain surgeons and rocket scientists, surely someone can figure out how to navigate controversial discussions. A myriad of strategies could help alleviate this issue.

For example, UCLA could sponsor after-hour free debate sessions so that students can bring their questions and topics to an arena dedicated to digging in and exposing the root of controversies. Or UCLA could bring in speakers with different political perspectives to debate the most controversial topics in the news in a respectful, professional manner.

Or UCLA could train its teaching faculty and give them suggestions for navigating these discussions. If a very controversial subject arises, they could recommend that the teaching faculty defer the conversation and email students after class to ensure that all students are OK with it. Those who aren’t can opt out or make a case for why the conversation shouldn’t happen at all.

In short, there are methods that the school could employ to ensure that students feel safe and free debate is preserved.

I am sure the teaching faculty also fear they won’t be protected if they allow students to partake in these debates and they go south, but sorting through that would have required a second latte.

As I enter my second year, I wonder whether I’ll ever have a professor who openly allows us to discuss, debate, embarrass ourselves, listen, apologize and grow.

I wonder if I’ll someday enter a classroom where I can get answers to some of those ignorant but totally well-intentioned questions that I’ve been too afraid to ask in any class thus far for fear of being shut down.

Because, like every curious student in the UCLA community, my mind is crammed to the brim with inquiries, controversies and topics for discussion.

If I can’t go to the classroom to propose them for productive, civilized discourse, then where in this polarized nation can I go?

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Danielle Taylor
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