The following first appeared in Public Square Magazine.
When a subset of students and faculty pushed to cancel Wendy Watson Nelson’s commencement speech last week at Utah Valley University, they did so in the name of “inclusivity.”
When the university president resisted these calls—and continued supporting the speech, some of the explanations also underscored the importance of “inclusivity.”
Anyone else confused? After all, this is the same word, right?
Usually, when certain words are used in the same language, they more or less mean the same thing. But in our polarized atmosphere today, the “same words” increasingly mean very different things—depending on the socio-political context.
Like many places of higher education, Utah Valley University insists upon what they call “radical inclusivity” as central to its mission. Competing views of what exactly that means, however, figured prominently in the back-and-forth last week.
One view of inclusivity. In one sense of the word, inclusivity refers to insisting on an atmosphere where the ideas, perspectives, and voices of all people are allowed to be heard and engaged. In a town hall talk prior to commencement, this was the sense of the term that University President Astrid Tuminez referred to in justifying the decision, suggesting that Wendy Nelson was an “inclusive” choice because 70% of the student population of 40,000 identifies as Latter-day Saint—and, therefore, making space for her voice was a chance to represent their own views (she is the wife of Russell Nelson, President of the Church of Jesus Christ).
The University later said through a spokesperson in a public statement:
As a university, we invite a variety of experts and leaders to speak to the students, faculty, and staff every year. These voices and perspectives are what creates a rich, beneficial college experience. When inviting speakers, we do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, or sex.
That same meaning was also reflected in Sister Nelson’s own remarks, which invited students to drop their contentions, open space “for the existence of another” and, through those actions, come to find love in their lives. “We don’t need to agree with another person’s ideas,” she said. “But when we open our ears and hearts to their ideas, love enters in.”
As many have increasingly pointed out in recent years, this kind of “inclusive” space for serious disagreement is an important value at the heart of America itself. But clearly, this isn’t the only definition of inclusivity—and not nearly the most popular and dominant one anymore, especially on social media and university campuses.
Another view of inclusivity. In another sense of the word, inclusivity refers not to an atmosphere where competing ideas, perspectives, and voices are allowed to be heard and engaged—but one where the comfort, safety, and well-being of specific minority groups are prioritized.
Kelli Potter, an associate professor of philosophy at UVU and a trans woman argued that “it is exclusionary to have someone” who she called “anti-LGBTQ” speaking at a “school that identifies inclusion as a central value.” “This is not inclusivity,” she added. “This does not help all students feel welcome. In fact, this is very harmful to some of our students, and it does the opposite: It excludes them.”
Frey Seagrove-Nelson, an associate professor of nursing at the school who identifies as queer, acknowledged in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune that she disagreed with the university president’s definition of inclusivity as centered on competing ideas. Instead, he argued, “it’s about giving a platform, giving a voice to historically marginalized groups”—adding:
There have been groups that have been silenced, that have had their voice taken away from them, that have been told you’re not worth listening to. Inclusivity is hearing those people.
And what about the other voices? Well, maybe they don’t deserve a place of prominence anymore? And maybe doing so just sends the wrong message?
That’s precisely the contention. As another professor Diaz suggested, inviting someone who has a different perspective on LGBTQ issues “just becomes a signifier to other people who have these hostile ideologies that their ideas are supported.”
From this perspective, the earlier definition of inclusivity is seen as a place for the ongoing dominance of the majority view.
And from this perspective, the right course of action is to advocate for removing voices like Sister Nelson’s from a place of any public prominence at the university. In a faculty and student letter prior to the event, they loudly protested “the administration’s and trustees’ choice to celebrate and give a voice to Wendy Watson Nelson at our most public annual event”—calling it an “administrative blunder” and suggesting that it “signals a lack of sympathetic understanding that in fact is dangerous to our LGBTQ+ students. ”Whether, of course, these teachings about identity and sexuality represent an “attack” on a certain group of people—or an invitation towards greater happiness for all people—is another point of disagreement here … one hardly acknowledged anymore. In lieu of deplatforming someone like Nelson for espousing certain views, professors like Bonnie Shiffler-Olsen publicized their own protest decision in “refus[ing] to attend” and refusing to “give Nelson an audience.”
Will such advocacy and protests be seen in future histories as brave dissenters standing up for the civil rights of all? Or narrow ideologies pushing away dissenting views from the very places designed to foster such critical engagement?
Insisting that this opposition rose not due to “a problem with her (Nelson’s) religion,” Kelli Potter, an associate professor of philosophy at UVU and a trans woman, argued, “it is exclusionary to have someone who [believes as she does] speaking at a school that identifies inclusion as a central value.”
But, of course, it is specifically a problem with Dr. Nelson’s religious convictions—which professors kept referring to as “anti-LGBTQ.”
Whether, of course, these teachings about identity and sexuality represent an “attack” on a certain group of people—or an invitation towards greater happiness for all people—is another point of disagreement here … one hardly acknowledged anymore.
At the heart of this discussion are other crucial questions—What should a university “stand for”? The open exchange of competing ideas—or something else?
Also, what does it mean to discriminate? Would it be discrimination to disallow a leader like Wendy Nelson to speak—or discrimination to allow her to do so?
Clearly, we do not agree on these matters right now. But rather than make space for a conversation where we can actually hear each other’s different views of discrimination, inclusivity, and ideals of liberal arts education itself, too often the conversation reverts to competing accusations, suspicions, and recriminations.
It’s not hard to imagine UVU—or any university—trembling to ever consider bringing anyone to campus who believes as Wendy Nelson does—after these kinds of intense, and public attempts to shame and pressure the university. And we fully expect these kinds of campaigns to continue, powered by students and faculty persuaded of the righteousness of their own cause.
We wonder, however, do they really want to “win” through coercion and fear?
In place of power-plays, and future aggression, we would propose a better way to win: insist on maintaining the space for competing ideas to engage freely and openly.
If, indeed, you believe your view of identity, sexuality, and the well-being of our communities is better and nobler, then fight for it in the open marketplace of ideas. There, we can allow the “best ideas” to win out on their merits—because they have persuaded more people to embrace them.
And not because they’ve simply chased other ideas away—or forced people who hold them into silence.
That would be a real victory. Are you willing to go after it?
Let’s try it. Instead of winking even more at creeping censoriousness, let’s insist on the joy and power of grappling over what is true, good, and beautiful … together.