As the president of the public university named for the man who drafted the Bill of Rights and as a lawyer, I have often witnessed tensions as colleges and universities struggle to balance rights of free expression with equality of opportunity and freedom from discrimination. This balancing act is messy, complicated and emblematic of a struggle that James Madison and the other Founders addressed head-on: How do we ensure the rights of a diverse citizenry while maintaining conditions that would bind together an evolving population into a nation with a collective sense of civic purpose?
Often, debates on campuses and in society regarding hot-button topics related to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc., have degenerated from respectful civil discourse into shouting matches, personal attacks and even violence. We can — and must — strive to do better to preserve and enhance this grand experiment in self-governance put into place over two centuries ago.
As we celebrate the 225th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, we need to remind ourselves of how this can happen.
First, we should look to history and recognize that this collision of rights threatening the “social contract” is not new.
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651 that in the pure state of nature, human life would be “solitary, nasty, brutish and short.” That’s because a pure state of nature would lack political order; everyone would have a right to everything. We’d be in a constant state of a “war of all against all.”
By signing on to the social contract, each of us gains security in exchange for subjecting ourselves to some degree of political authority. Hobbes might say that we accept a set of rules limiting our behavior in exchange for protection by the same set of rules governing others’ behavior.
President Madison saw the need for a political structure that would allow creative tensions among various factions to be given voice, test one another, and compete and coexist within a set of boundaries. A year before he rose to introduce the Bill of Rights, Madison wrote in 1788, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” Madison’s political philosophy was thus rooted in a clear-eyed assessment of human nature, and a recognition that we are all fallible.
In 1787, Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10 that the essence of the new government proposed in the Constitution would be based on counterbalancing human interests. He believed that the more liberty a government afforded its citizens, the more likely competing factions would keep any one group from dominating. Fundamentally, the engine of governance envisioned by Madison, and written into the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, celebrated human diversity as a political virtue.
As frustrating as it might seem at times, the underlying premise of Madison’s approach was that competing opinions are, in fact, a civic good. No matter how strongly we feel that the other side is politically or socially wrong, we actually need that other side, according to Madison’s conceptual framework for governing.
No matter where we are on the political spectrum, we can reinforce our constitutional system by respecting one another enough to admit that we need, and benefit from, people who have different opinions, backgrounds and beliefs.
We can avoid a “solitary, nasty, brutish and short” future by focusing not only on our rights, but also on the responsibilities that go along with those rights. For example, our rights of free speech correspond with a responsibility to accept rights of opposing factions to hold their viewpoints. In higher education, we can model this balancing act with vigorous debates in which facts, evidence and information are shared — and active listening and respect are practiced and valued.
The rules of engagement that make higher education and our system of government function optimally are not easy. They can’t all be defined precisely or enforced like statutes — such is the price we pay for the freedoms we enjoy. But the best way for us to honor the Bill of Rights may be to remember the balance and interplay between individual rights and the needs of the community. Madison embodied that vision in his life’s work, and it remains the true calling of all citizens today.
• Jonathan R. Alger, J.D., is the sixth president of James Madison University, where he focuses his efforts on making JMU the national model for the engaged university. Prior to his tenure at JMU, Mr. Alger served as senior vice president and general counsel at Rutgers University and as assistant general counsel at the University of Michigan, where he played a key role in Michigan’s two landmark Supreme Court cases on diversity and admissions. He has advised universities nationwide on how to build and sustain diversity initiatives and programs. Mr. Alger earned his juris doctorate with honors from Harvard Law School and his bachelor of arts with high honors from Swarthmore College. For more information, contact Bill Wyatt at 540-568-4908 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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