Move the Needle

Adam J. Pallas

My professional and academic worlds overlap significantly, which makes sense because I work in the field of my academic study (i.e., higher education, specifically student affairs). Over the last few months, a puzzle has plagued my colleagues: what to do about our commitment to freedom of expression and our commitment to inclusive campus climates. Torn between the values of both, I want to discuss an on-going case at the University of Iowa as a way to help capture some of my thoughts on this ultimate question.

Before I get into it, let me position myself. The intersection of my identities is like a reflection of the question. I am a white American gay man. I am afforded a great deal of privilege because I am readily identified by American society as a white man; I am also denied privileges because of my gay identity on a regular basis. The intersection of these two is like the intersection between freedom of speech, where ideas from white men are given great power in society, and inclusion, where systems must be rebuilt to allow for the inclusion of historically marginalized identities. In addition, I’m not a lawyer and I speak only for me (i.e., I’m exercising my academic freedom and responsibility here).


So let’s begin: Iowa. I encourage you to read this article to gather context on this story; there are nuances that are lost in my summation. In essence, a University of Iowa student was barred from holding a leadership position in a faith-based student organization because of the student’s gay identity. The University in the past has allowed faith-based organizations to make leadership and membership decisions based on the tenets of faith, citing religious freedom and the University’s position as a public institution, which ties it to the tenants of the First Amendment. Other public institutions also allow similar membership decisions on the basis of faith. Now, the University has reversed their decision, saying that this form of discrimination is unacceptable, and has since revoked access to benefits (e.g., campus space, funding) from the faith-based student organization and others that have provisions of identity-based discrimination regarding who can hold officer/member positions. Naturally, a federal lawsuit is underway. Again, I encourage you to read the article.


Cases like this have been historically easily settled in and out of the Courts – infringing on students’ religious freedoms is unacceptable because to make a decision about one faith is to make a decision about all faiths, even those that are marginalized (however there’s nuance like human sacrifices aren’t acceptable). Infringing on students’ freedom of speech is also unacceptable for the exact same reasons (also nuanced, like obscenity, lies, and “fighting words” are unprotected). In the ways that the system works now, this all makes sense.


Drawing lines between the acceptable and unacceptable is often portrayed as a slippery slope away from personal liberties and towards the end of American democracy. For instance, colleges’ hate speech codes in the 1990s were struck down because of their broad, overreaching limitations on speech. The Courts decided freedom of speech was greater than the potential harm the speech would cause to those with marginalized identities. It should be noted the hate speech codes, while created to protect those with marginalized identities from hate speech, were most frequently used to punish those with marginalized identities.


Like the hate speech codes, Iowa’s decision to revoke access to benefits from these groups is an attempt to change their own application of their human rights policy. After all, if the University is going to provide funding, space, and other benefits to these groups, then they should be held to the equal opportunity policies followed by other activities at the University. But also like the hate speech codes, there’s an impasse between individual freedom ensured by the First Amendment and protections of those with marginalized identities from hate speech and its harmful effects. To do the latter, the former must change dramatically.


So I hear a rebuttal: why would a gay student want to be part of a student organization that clearly doesn’t want them there? Certainly this student can be a part of another student organization, and this is a moot point. I agree that at a large public university, it is almost guaranteed that this student can find a different community to which to belong. Just walk away.


This line of thinking though is one that roots itself in the current logic of the system of the First Amendment. The issue at hand is the University, which espouses the value of diversity and inclusion, is in direct conflict with this principle by providing resources and support to a student organization that discriminates based on identity. To embrace inclusion fully, I argue the University and public institutions do not need to provide resources to these organizations, especially if the institution is truly committed to the principles of equal opportunity. I recognize that practitioners of a faith often do not get to choose the tenets of their faith, which I respect for those practitioners who recognize the cognitive dissonance between the desires of inclusion and exclusion. I also recognize my radical stance on this issue is likely a result of my own identity being directly involved in the Iowa case.


Also, just as the gay student can walk away from the community that shuns them, so too do all others who do not subscribe to the faith’s doctrine. The student organization that discriminates on the basis of ideology naturally selects out who joins and who takes on leadership positions by virtues of the values of the community, so mandating discrimination is unnecessary. However, I quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Discrimination, written or practiced, ought not to be awarded funds and resources by an institution that values diversity and inclusion.


So this is an impossibly large change, and it’s one that I imagine a lot of institutions and organizations that have power in society will get into. Kudos to Iowa for taking a stand against discrimination, but I’d wager they’re not going to win this case, not only because they’ve violated their own policy and applied their decision unequally to their student organizations, but also because the systems that struck down the hate speech codes in the 90s is still very-much alive today. The Freedom of Expression will not be infringed by those who hold marginalized identities.


This is where I feel helpless, especially because this situation is not unique to the University of Iowa. In my academic and professional circles, we feel share feelings of powerless to move the needle because the system is so large, so complex. We are often the ones who lack power in the system, and we’re often the ones who know we’re in the right.


So what do you do when you can’t move the needle?


For me, that question comes from the place when the lessons of leadership, and specifically the Leadership Minor, come into different and often unforgiving contexts. The question seeks to capture the feeling of helplessness where the thing that needs to change is the very fabric of a culture, system, or society; and it is so entrenched in the minds and hearts of people that it feels impossible to change. Facing the immovable wall is exhausting, it’s draining, and it’s a fast track to burnout and complacency. Understanding what to do when you can’t move the needle of an organization or culture or society or a single person is at least one way to continue acting.


I asked this the other day when I was discussing the topic of this post with someone at work. She said that we often focus on the impossible tasks, the great challenges of society, and we drain ourselves pushing against it. She offered that we have take the energy our frustration the impossible task gives us and use that energy to push the needle elsewhere so hard, so well, so effectively that when we return to the impossible task, those with power can’t help but agree with us. I don’t know if it’s a good solution, but it’s one that allows me to continue acting, to continue leading.


So how do I move the needle with free speech and inclusive campus climate? No idea, but I’ll let you know when we’re done moving another needle.







Adam J. Pallas is an alumnus of the Leadership Minor (Dec. 2016), fully employed at the U of M, and fully in the weeds of pursuing a Master’s degree in Higher Education.