The Balancing Act: Vetting Guest Speakers While Keeping Open Dialogue

Higher education has always tried to maintain a reputation as an open stage for dialogue to take place among students, faculty, and staff of all genders, races, ethnicities, sexual orientation, socioeconomic backgrounds, and political affiliations. This openness extends to guest speakers on campuses, providing a podium for actors, authors, politicians, activists, creatives, artists, and other influencers. Today, the processes for approving and hosting guest speakers have come under review and refinement, often leaving event organizers doing a balancing act between comment and controversy.

In recent years, much debate has sprung up about guest speakers. The increased polarization of politics and protests have caused friction between event organizers and students, particularly if a speaker comes from a controversial history. This has caused many universities to formally write and enforce their own guest speaker policies. For example, the University of Texas began requiring student organizations to submit guest speaker events to the Dean of Students for final approval.

Each university has nuances to its own policy, but there is a common theme: the commitment to student safety. This push for safety materializes in requirements for security, such as working with campus police for guest speaker events. At the University of Pittsburgh, hosting organizations are required to pay for all security costs. And policies such as the one at Baylor University specifically addresses consequences from violence and hate speech.

“Speakers who advocate violent rebellion and illegal resistance to the laws of the state and nation or the rules of the University should not be invited,” Baylor’s policy reads. “Speakers whose purposes and methods are basically contrary to the purposes and methods of a Christian university such as Baylor should not be invited. The use of profanity shall not be tolerated.” The University of St. Thomas has similar requirements outlined in its own policies, specifically as they relate to the Catholic faith.

At the University of North Carolina Charlotte, new guidelines for vetting guest speakers have been developed. Karen Shaffer, assistant vice chancellor of Student Affairs at UNC Charlotte, previewed the new guidelines in an email interview with The Bulletin

“If we know in advance that [guest speaker’s] past programs have not aligned with our vision and values, we can make a determination as to whether it is a program we believe merits university sponsorship,” Shaffer said. “Regardless of whether a particular speaker is sponsored by the University, we may choose to invite additional speakers to share a series of ideas and approaches to a topic. If it is a safety and security misalignment, we would work with our colleagues in Police and Public Safety to determine if we can effectively secure the artist, event, and campus based on the information we have.”

UNC Charlotte’s new guidelines highlight the collaboration among every department involved with events, including Police & Public Safety, University Communications, Conferences, Reservations, & Event Services, and more.

“We have a centralized reservations approach at UNC Charlotte, which allows us to have strong relationships between our CRES team with P&PS and UComm,” Shaffer said. “Additionally, we can pull the event planners into the conversation as we all work together to ensure the event is successful and is communicated as intended. Police & Public Safety colleagues have supported event planners in sharing their thoughts about security needs, University Communications has assisted departments in messaging about the purpose of an event and how it fits within the educational mission of the University, and Conferences, Reservations, and Event Services connects the event planners with the appropriate resources to ensure success.”

The balancing act of hosting guest speakers of all backgrounds and maintaining open dialogue with keeping campuses safe will undoubtedly remain a complex issue. With resources such as the Disinvitation Database—a database from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education that tracks speakers disinvited from campuses—the backlash to disinviting or even banning guest speakers looms large.

Thankfully, the presence of open and active dialogue as a component of a successful campus community continues to expand. This year ACUI’s Active Dialogue Working Group delivered its final report to the Board of Trustees, and on June 14-20, the National Week of Conversation will shine a spotlight on open dialogue with topics that include unifying beyond differences, Black Lives Matter, and divides in the workplace.

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