The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, has given Colorado College a yellow rating for free speech. In 2012 and 2016, CC was listed in the top 10 worst schools for free speech.
To be fair, most small liberal arts schools have a tumultuous history with free speech. Big news stories have covered restrictive administrative policies that limit or ban conservative student organizations, prevent students from taking resident advisor or other campus positions because of their political affiliations, suspend or take other punitive measures against students who have been vocal about their political stance in their school paper or on social media, censure professor publications, and fire or otherwise punish professors whose views don’t align with the left-wing culture prominent in most liberal arts institutions.
While administrative policies remain the focus of most national conversations, the question I get asked by prospective students has nothing to do with how CC’s student policy and resource guide, The Pathfinder, or President Jill Tiefenthaler address free speech. When new or potential students learn that my political views … deviate from the general trend at CC, I’m frequently asked what that is like, if I’m able to make friends, if other students are OK with it, if I’m isolated by beliefs, and if I’m still able to develop a connection with my professors.
None of these questions can be answered by reading a free speech code or legalistic policies; they are about the social culture at CC. Thankfully, most students don’t have to deal with direct censorship on their campus. The news stories, although significant, make up a minority of students’ experiences, but a far greater number of people are affected by peer pressure, professor biases, and the pervasive culture in their school on an almost daily basis.
Although I cannot speak for the majority of students on campus, in my personal interactions I have found the students at CC and the professors within the Department of Political Science to be respectful, and in many cases encouraging, of diverse opinions both inside and outside the classroom. I’ve found most students to be curious about my ideas instead of dismissive. When politically divisive topics come up in class, students come up to me afterward wanting to understand more about my perspective. Though teachers and peers may push back on my ideas, very few have ever made me feel attacked because of what I believe.
When I am asked what it is like to be a conservative on campus, I tell students that it is hard. It can get lonely to be in an environment where even your core values are challenged. It is also the greatest opportunity I have ever had and has helped me grow so much as a person. I’ve never felt unsafe or unfairly treated because of my beliefs. I sincerely hope that will continue to be the case.
In fact, I’ve found some of my closest friends in the extreme left. Though we have dramatically different political views, we share the same passion about current events, the same desire to be involved, and the same goal of improving the country and helping people. Many of those individuals I have met through Mock Trial, a place I have found to be open for political discussion. Students from every ideological background come together and leave their bias at the door to research and construct arguments based on the merits of the case. At some point we are all forced to defend a position we totally disagree with and argue for it persuasively. As a team, we learn to respect each other while debating over controversial topics on a regular basis.
For example, last semester, the three communication teams on campus — Mock Trial, Model UN, and Speech & Debate — hosted a debate on the value of “callout culture” on college campuses with the hope to promote the values we have learned in our respective events and model academic discourse on campus. Each side argued the merits of their case, regardless of the speakers’ personal beliefs, and teams were determined by a simple coin flip.
The three main points in defense of “callout culture” discussed how it acts as a platform for marginalized voices, the influence it can have on the social and institutional cultures that create the high sexual assault rate that plagues college campuses, and how “callout culture” promotes accountability.
The team arguing for the resolution, that “callout culture” is problematic, showed how the shame associated with callout culture stagnates social change; precludes more effective alternatives, such as calling in; and reinforces privilege at the expense of the marginalized groups for whom it claims to advocate.
This article has been slightly edited from the original version, which initially ran in the Dec. 14, 2019 issue of The Catalyst, CC’s independent student newspaper. Find Gorsuch’s unedited version at thecatalystnews.com/opinion/reaching-across-the-aisle.