Cantor´s goal: Get students at UI talking

She didn't fire the editor when the University of Illinois campus newspaper printed a vitriolic letter containing just about every horrible anti-semitic stereotype imaginable.

University of Illinois Chancellor Nancy Cantor couldn't have done that anyway, even if she had wanted, despite the demand in some of the hundreds of e-mails she received afterward. Nor could she kick the Daily Illini off campus, another demand. It's already off campus.

What Cantor did instead was get students together to talk, student editors and Jewish students, with some well-meaning older folks along to lend a hand, in a setting structured to be a ?safe haven? for dialogue, and for learning.

?If universities can do anything,? Cantor said at the end of her talk to the Champaign County Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on Sunday night, ?it will be that we can help people talk to each other.?

Cantor was the featured speaker at the local ACLU chapter's annual meeting and dinner. Her talk was titled ?Free Speech and Conflict on Campus: The Case for Social Responsibility.?

?Free speech is an absolute necessity on campus,? she said, the strong emotions and tensions it may generate not withstanding. ?But so is a considered quest and exchange.?

And that, in a nutshell, is the tricky balancing act a place like the UI has to perform, Cantor said.

Since she arrived in 2001, a series of challenges have made it tough to keep the university on that tightrope, from world conflict to Chief Illiniwek.

Cantor said the airing of differences, even hateful speech, can be useful and educational.

The question is how to provide such an opportunity, how to let free speech flow, in ways that don't tear at the fabric of the university, she said.

?The one thing we don't want is to have anybody feel banished in the process,? Cantor said.

In the case of the Daily Illini letter, Cantor said she had no question about the right of the student paper to print the letter.

But she questioned whether it was worth the pain and discomfort it caused Jewish students and said the student editors probably hadn't considered that in making the decision to run the piece.

In part, the forum on the nature of free speech, hate speech and the political nature of speech that followed was intended to get the student journalists to consider such issues the next time, Cantor said, and to help students on both sides of the debate understand each other at least a little better.

Meanwhile, she said, Jewish student groups had received expressions of support from Muslim student groups after the letter as a result of previous, similar campus efforts to get them talking.

?What we're trying to do on the Illinois campus ... is build expectations person to person, group to group, that others will be there for you,? Cantor said.

She said that kind of thing can't happen if the discussion is carried on in such a way that it pushes people apart rather than pulls them together.

?The only way I know to do it is to be able to keep everybody in the room,? Cantor said.

You can reach Greg Kline at (217) 351-5215 or via e-mail at kline@news-gazette.com.

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