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Controversial Events and the Role of Faculty

On Monday afternoon, the Federalist Society at Northwestern Law sent an email to the student listserv, announcing an event titled “Marriage: What it is, Why it Matters, and the Consequences of Redefining it.” The lunch event featured a speaker from The Heritage Foundation and was catered by Chick-fil-A. (Chick-fil-A has a long history of donating to anti-gay causes.) Still, my first instinct was to ignore it. “Delete.” Maybe that’s just a product of being deep in dissertation-land. The only way you survive is by focusing on what really matters and tuning out the rest.

But the listserv quickly exploded in response (If it made Above the Law, you know it had to be juicy). OUTLaw and several other student groups organized a response that included: encouraging law students to attend this lunch event wearing purple, providing food from Chipotle as an alternative to the Chick-fil-A, and organizing a discussion safe space later in the afternoon for people to come together and process their feelings and reactions to the event.

For better or for worse, my schedule prevented me from attending the event myself. But the email explosion got me thinking. I’m expecting to be a professor next year. And given my research, I will likely be invited to speak at events like this (this particular event included commentary from Andy Koppelman). So how would I respond?

The easy part is to actually speak at the event. This is what I do. It’s what I research, it’s what my teaching is on. I’m no stranger to speaking on controversial topics (whether this should still be considered a “controversial topic” is a question for another post), and I’m well seasoned at handling the questions and comments that come with it. It’s important to me to be involved in these sorts of campus events. I’m more than ready for the day when we’re done debating LGBT rights. But as long as we’re debating them, it’s a role I’m willing to fill.

But I think my more important role in an event like this comes after the event itself. It comes as a mentor and a resource for the students–LGBTQ or allies–who are hurt, upset, or just want to talk about the event. It comes in the form of being an out role model for these students. It comes in recommending career paths, internships, volunteer opportunities, and research paths that students might pursue if they are interested. It comes in recommending speakers and events that students might organize in response, and in supervising papers and research that they might take up. It comes in simply having an open office where students can talk.

I particularly like the idea of organizing a discussion safe-space for interested students. This time, student organizations took on this project. But as a faculty member, this is something I could suggest. I think it’s important that faculty not try to restrict the sort of speakers that student groups invite to campus, even if we might personally disagree with them and be tired of a debate. But I also think it’s important that we are willing to provide resources and support to students that want to respond when controversial issues do come up.

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