Academic Debate is Not Disrespectful, Crushing Debate Is

It is important to promote an open exchange of ideas in an academic setting, indeed, in all settings. We seem to have entered a period where academic debate or disagreement is considered disrespectful. There was a time when we not only expected students to challenge our perspective, but we took pride when they reached the point they bested us. Now, we don’t even accept pointing out an error from other faculty, students, or staff as acceptable. This does not promote learning! It does not promote understanding, and it certainly isn’t a sign of respect.

How do we know what people stand for if we are unwilling to listen to them? If someone says something in error or is unintentionally misguided, and we try to “cancel” them, who is the disrespectful one? Academia cannot become Twitter, where people block anyone with a different perspective so they can live in an echo chamber of the like-minded. This differs from lying, ignoring all evidence, or intentionally misleading people. For a person to lie, they have to make a statement that is not true with the intention to deceive.

Being firm isn’t the same as being rigid, and being authoritative isn’t the same as being authoritarian. Provosts and deans need backbone, but the most valuable part of a backbone is that it’s strong enough to stiffen when necessary and flexible enough to bend a little when compromise is required.

Buttler, J.L. The Essential Academic Dean or Provost

Too often, classrooms and faculty meetings reflect the cancel culture where everyone is silent for fear of being considered disrespectful or unenlightened if they speak about an issue. This is particularly problematic in nursing departments where the overwhelming majority of the faculty are not tenure track, spent most of their careers in a hierarchical hospital setting, and have depended on annual contracts. Most nursing faculty have never experienced an academic environment where intellectual debate is part of the culture and because they are often apart from the rest of the university and have demanding schedules they have little interaction with those that grew up in academics culture. While I have never seen a nursing faculty member not renewed for speaking out, I can recognize their fear that it could happen or that there could be retaliation in other ways (no salary increases, increased or poor teaching assignments, etc.).

We need to listen to what junior faculty are saying, not just with our ears but our hearts. When junior faculty remain silent about curriculum changes we all know they don’t want, their fear of retaliation screams silently in the room. When we see huge numbers of abstentions on votes, it is not because faculty don’t care. It is fear. Where does the fear originate?

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. . . . He who no longer listens to his brother will soon no longer be listening to God either. . . . One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it.


I don’t know how to fix the view that debate and divergent views are undesirable in our current culture, but we could fix it in nursing. We need to revise tenure so that it is inclusive of those who are clinical faculty members in colleges of nursing. Why is it that excellent teachers in many universities do not qualify for tenure while average researchers do? Until there is a critical mass of nursing faculty with tenure, I’m unsure how we make them feel safe enough to debate issues and not feel threatened if anyone disagrees with them. We must encourage debate, not crush it.

You don’t need the right answer to enter the debate. The debate reveals the answer.

Leave a Reply