Elizabeth Bradley

Grand Strategy for the Campus Commons

Air Date: January 13, 2020

Vassar College president Elizabeth Bradley discusses free speech, engaged pluralism, and political inequality.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. My guest today is Vassar College president and political science professor Elizabeth Bradley, who leads the coeducational independent residential liberal arts college, founded in 1861. She was previously the director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy at Yale, a university wide interdisciplinary program to train emerging leaders. The program employed a comprehensive approach to achieving large ends with limited means, examining disciplines across history, political science, classical literature as context to address a wide range of contemporary public policy challenges on security, economic inequality, global health and climate change. President, I’m delighted to welcome you here today. Thanks for being here.

BRADLEY: Thank you so much, Alexander.

HEFFNER: I was just saying to you off camera, we’ve hosted both liberal arts college presidents and major university presidents. I’m thinking of Wesleyan, Notre Dame, University of Richmond. We’re delighted to have you here. We’d like to get a sense of the campus commons, specifically this question of free speech and fair speech on campus. How do you think in the midst of a contentious and sometimes even vitriolic political climate, how your campus and campuses more broadly are confronting the resurgence of bigotry and the danger of accepting a discourse that might be a bigoted discourse?

BRADLEY: Well, thank you so much Alexander. It’s a great question something I think about a lot. I think for most people run in colleges and universities today, this is absolutely front and center, a primary question for us. And I’d step us back a little bit on your question. I think we have to frame free speech as not an isolated value. It’s absolutely fundamental. You have to have it on college campuses. There’s no way around it. But if you think free speech alone is going to confer the kind of social equity we look at, we’re mistaken. And instead we really need to look at both pursuing the ends of free speech and the ends of social inclusion at the same time. When you do that, it’s a really interesting campus because suddenly you are saying everybody has a voice. The whole goal of the campus is to bring different voices together that are really different and that’s edge that brings edges to the place.

And what happens at an edge, an edge can be all kinds of things. It can be sharp and very difficult and full of tension. It can be thrilling and sort of you see both sides at once cause you right on the edge. And at Vassar what we’re really working on is creating an environment where you allow edges to meet like that, the sparks will fly, but hopefully they get channeled into all kinds of new, I don’t know, you spark the creativity, new friendships, new ways to look at the world, creativity, innovations. So if you allow both the freedom to speak, but you bring everybody to the table for that freedom, which is sometimes what hasn’t happened before, I think you can really make a change. And that skills, those kinds of skills are good for the world, not just for campuses.

HEFFNER: You’re practicing something you call engaged pluralism,


HEFFNER: …In the way that you participate in the democratic governance of your own institution. Can you tell our viewers about that?

BRADLEY: Yes. Well one of the strong values at Vassar has always been empowerment. The students are empowered, the faculty are empowered. We have shared governance. So a democracy is really what we are about and engaged pluralism is fundamental to that. When we say engaged pluralism, it’s really a value system or a framework for dealing with a wildly diverse set of people. And you know America hasn’t always dealt well with diversity when you think about it, I mean, there’s segregation, that’s one way in which people deal with diversity. They separate people into their groups, and big boundaries between them and they don’t learn from each other. We’ve had a huge history on that. There’s assimilation, which we’ve also had a huge history on where people just, who are diverse come in and you just need to act like the majority and you’ll get along.

We reject both of these and say they are polar ways to look at it and instead an engaged pluralistic approach is, well let’s hear what you have to say and engage long enough that you really hear what the other side is. It doesn’t mean you’re going to change someone’s mind, doesn’t mean you’re going to go away with a changed mind, but you will go away having learned something, you’ll understand more. And that’s what we’re trying to do throughout the campus.

HEFFNER: And to be specific, you’re giving students, faculty and staff alike an opportunity, a vehicle through which they can express their democratic will beyond speech in actually what is participatory governance within your community, which is I think a unique aspiration.

BRADLEY: Absolutely. We’ve a great example of this is we have a committee called the Priority and Planning Committee and that committee is fundamental to setting the strategic direction of the college and that committee, people on that are elected and it is students, staff, administrators, faculty. And that, that committee really is the heart of where we, how we set our next five to seven year plans. And it’s a democracy, they’re elected and then we duke it out around the table and students and faculty together and staff as well and sort of there’s an equality of voices around the table

HEFFNER: In the same way President that you reject a dichotomy or some sort of binary choice in the way we conceive of diversity or what is egalitarian on a campus. I think of that when it comes to speech because we have social media executives now pretending to be First Amendment lawyers in the way that they want to purely govern their mediums, which like at Vassar they can decide that there is free speech and there is also compassionate speech and that in the words of John Palfrey – we want brave and safe spaces. But they don’t, they’re not thinking that way. They are absolutists when it comes to free expression right now for the most part with minimal banning of hate and bigotry on their platforms and also disinformation. But I reject the idea that you’re in adherent, a zealot adherent to the First Amendment or you’re a zealot adherent to censorship. Those are not the single courses. There’s also something called classification, meaning you identify what is bigoted or what is disinformation, and I’m wondering how that plays out at the campus level and whether that could at all be emulated for these mega, mega information hubs that are so much the origin of the bloodstream today.

BRADLEY: Yeah, I think the issue of what you’re really going to do once you allow free speech and you’ve got, something crawls into that free speech that’s very bigoted or hateful, et cetera. What does an institution do then if they have freedom to do what they want, they’re a private institution, they are a media company, et cetera. And there are a couple of principles I think that really help us on the campus and I think could be thought of more broadly. The first is you’ve got to make that a topic of conversation. You know what happens so often is when there’s been something hatefully said, immediately people jump to their corners and stop talking. They don’t stay around the table. Another approach could be, so that was hateful. What’s going on here? Why are we talking about this? What’s underneath that? So that again, it’s sort of privileging the social inclusion and community side of being free.

And as you said, I don’t believe in these as dichotomist. I believe in fact you’ve, you’ve got freedom, but it only really is successful if you have social inclusion and people can stay at the table when something hateful has happened and keep talking about it, rather than ahead of time being definitive about what will be in and what will be out, often that emerges through how you talk about it. That said, so there’s flexibility first. That said there have to be boundaries too. And we know this from millennia of theorists about, you’re not free unless you have some boundaries, and

HEFFNER: Well, you don’t have a civil free society,

BRADLEY: Ultimately,

HEFFNER: Those have to animate democratic rule.


HEFFNER: Otherwise it slips into anarchy.

BRADLEY: Anarchy,


BRADLEY: Right. Exactly.

HEFFNER: So, you know, when I say classification, I am intent on not labeling so much as drawing those boundaries in a way that is recognizable and is not censoring people.

BRADLEY: Yep. No question about it. And..

HEFFNER: Because we need a grand strategy right now for these social media companies that have abdicated responsibility.

BRADLEY: Yeah. And knowing what the boundaries are upfront and people, the best way to sort of govern a commons, you know, if we think about Elinor Ostrom, get the boundaries determined upfront. When people aren’t so heated, when you’re kind of calm, nothing has happened. Figure out what you will do if this happens. So negotiating those boundaries and those rules up front is something we work really hard on at Vassar. And a good example of this is when we have speakers, you know, we are very alert about what speakers who are very controversial can do to a campus. And so often, you know, the hate comes from the outside. It doesn’t emerge on the inside. It really comes to you. Nonetheless, how do you manage that?

So we have developed a really great process for this that involves, we have a set of peacekeepers that are students who have been trained themselves about how to contain if things get completely out of control. We definitely allow peaceful protests, but it must be peaceful, it can’t shut down a speaker. And there are so many proactive boundaries you can set. For instance, at the beginning of the talk, these are the rules of the talk. Everybody gets one question. You don’t get more than one question. The moderator will hold the microphone, you know, they’re tiny things to very large things; that it will end at seven o’clock. It won’t just keep bleeding on if like things are getting out of control. It ends at this time. And I believe that if we took this, and it’s so often true about grand strategy, the devil is in the details, and some of these they’re like leverage points, small bounded rules that you put in place when people are calm and they agree to the rules and then you enforce the rules when it happens.

HEFFNER: As you said from the outset, you do have to determine whether someone’s intent or an institution’s intent is constructive or destructive. And, you know, that’s a nuanced conversation that we can only have once we have a First Amendment, but we have to have it.

BRADLEY: Yeah. And if someone’s intent is destructive, you hope your rules are robust enough that you can protect people from that destruction. And that’s what you’re going for…

HEFFNER: And what is defined as counterproductive or destructive as opposed to constructive or productive in terms of speech and governance, that is viewed as a subjective matter now more than an objective matter. So subjectively speaking, as you speak to your fellow presidents at universities, private and public around the country, what are they saying about these kinds of subjective tests that we employ?

BRADLEY: You know, I think that most college presidents and universities are thinking all the time about how to allow both freedom and safety to be on the campus. And longevity, you know, you really don’t want to lose. And I, I think this is a really important thing as we talk about campuses, we have to remember that these students, they start as first years, they’re 18 years old, then they’re sophomores and sophomoric is a word for a reason. Because often in sophomore year, you know, people grab on an ideology and they’re putting on that ideology for three weeks and then they’re going to put on another. That’s how we grow up. And so, so often colleges are sort of made fun of for the silly things that happen because people take a cross section of, well, what happened to that, well, you know, yeah, that was silly. But by the time that student’s a senior, if they’ve gone through several of these events and there’ve been boundaries and there’s been good leadership, you know, they’re going to laugh at themselves back when they’re sophomores too.

We all did that stuff like that. What’s dangerous in our own world and in terms of how we get media around is just today’s world those silly mistakes that get made, you know, in one lecture hall at the end of a building suddenly can be live streamed. And what used to be words can’t hurt you: it’s just words. Words carry a lot more power than they used to ‘cause a trillion people can see them quickly.


BRADLEY: And your future employers can see them quickly. And as a result, I think that the stakes are just so high now and that we really do try to educate all of us about, you know, from administrators to staff, to faculty, students, you know, watch your words ‘cause they aren’t per se weapons, but boy, they can be weaponized. And so we work pretty hard on that as part of the education.

HEFFNER: Today and today’s unequal society is so measurable in the vastness of the inequity that we have a presidential candidate and many presidential candidates anticipating 2020 who are recognizing the height of this disconnect and proposing major overhauls that are sometimes detailed and sometimes systemic, and how they’re going to try to better our economy for more people. Being at the helm of a university, but also being a political scientist, to put your political scientist hat on right now, how effective are these candidates going to be in not just wanting to bring back normalcy in our rhetoric to reverse course from what the Trump administration, but specifically Trump has meant to our discourse. But how successful do you anticipate they’re going to be at negotiating with the American people on this issue, and I specifically reference Senator Warren who has many plans that would try to foster equity in a climate that’s denied opportunity for so many people.

BRADLEY: Well, key question, I mean, let’s start with income inequality. We go back to ancient Rome to now when countries or nation states get too inequitable problems happen, that’s not a stable situation. And we can study one revolution after the other; large differences in income that persist don’t persist. Ultimately, there’s a coup, there’s a change, there’s a new way in which that society will be will be managed. The question is, where is the United States in this long trajectory of building towards inequality, and where is the tipping point where finally the people of the country, whether they’re wealthy or not, say we can no longer sustain this kind of income inequality. And I think pending how you answer that is whether Senator Warren or any of the other presidential candidates on either side could really address the income inequality issue that’s underlying so much of our polarization. I mean, we look at it geographically, we look at it a rural city, people are living in different United States.

HEFFNER: I just came back from Iowa and speaking with an Uber driver who considered himself very conservative. And we came to a conclusion that whether you consider yourself pretty conservative or pretty liberal, you are discontent with the status quo, the economic status quo in this country that President Trump intended to and promised to correct. He said he alone could fix it when it came to economic distress. And so you don’t really have these two populations living in silos other than maybe their registration, with the exception of the oligarchic community, which wants the status quo. So you have pretty conservative and pretty liberal people who would probably agree about human dignity and probably agree about an economy that respects human dignity. And so how do you translate that politically for someone like Senator Warren into language that is going to be robust enough to compete in a general election? How…

BRADLEY: That certainly what she is trying to do is figuring out exactly what that language is.

HEFFNER: What is it? Yeah.

BRADLEY: Well listen, I think your point that people agree a lot more than you think they agree is true. We’ve seen it in healthcare completely, I mean everybody wants everybody to have access to healthcare who doesn’t want, someone who needs to get healthy to have access to healthcare. Everybody wants it. What I think we don’t face well enough is what sacrifices have to be made to make that happen. What income redistribution, what sense of control, which institutions that are structural in the United States actually need to change to say, oh yeah, everyone can get healthcare and yes we can have more income equality. So whereas you said, you know, my Uber driver and you know, conservative, liberal. We agree, but the devil is in the details. Again, when you get to, okay,

HEFFNER: No I agree, it’s part of the grand reconciliation. The grand strategy we need right now is grand reconciliation.

BRADLEY: It really is. It really is. Yes. And in history, those don’t happen without a lot of pain to where people are ready for that reconciliation because the alternative is so difficult and is our alternative right now so difficult yet. And where is that moment?

HEFFNER: What Elizabeth Warren is seeking is a return to the Eisenhower Administration for all people, so you know, if we want to say that that didn’t include people of color, we want economic fairness that was the status quo when it comes to the taxation system. I mean, ever since the progressive taxation and the progressive era, regressive reforms or overhaul have dominated,

BRADLEY: I think the first thing of how do you sort of put that into words, I mean, I think the most successful presidents to this have appealed to our common values. You know, that’s, that’s where they come back to, which tend to be, you can get ahead here, education, health, leadership, democracy, these values that I think most voters feel very okay, yes, I can agree with that. The problem is that those values only go so far because you know, you get elected and moments later and you have to say, yeah, what’s the policy? What is the manifestation of what we’re going to do? And I think the particularly in my own field of public health, one of the most successful global health ever innovations happened during George bushes. Time with PEPFAR, AIDS relief, and one of the grand strategies he really had was to bring the left and the right together around something that was root about humanity, and ultimately found ways, devil’s in the details about how he would write the legislation so that the left and the right could stand behind it.

HEFFNER: And yet retrospectively that feels like a betrayal in the sense that it was so targeted at non-domestic crises.

BRADLEY: Ultimately though that, you know, working through PEPFAR ultimately did drive a complete change in how we do HIV care in the United States in a much better way. So it’s a matter of ordering

HEFFNER: Right, priorities,

BRADLEY: And where he could find the opportunity to really demonstrate some collegiality across the lines and then using that as leverage to say, okay, this is what we’re doing all over Africa. What are we doing right here? And I think that those, you know, we’re in a different world now, but opportunities where you can see the left and the right could agree on something that is at root about supporting humanity and sticking with it for awhile.

HEFFNER: Part of that realization that we’re such an unequal society is at least honor people’s right to have healthcare if we have such devious inequality and extremes …

BRADLEY: Or divisive.

HEFFNER: I say devious, because it has at least some malignant elements to it

BRADLEY: I guess so. Yeah. Yeah.

HEFFNER: But at least give everybody, you know, adequate quality care.


HEFFNER: Something that the Affordable Care Act aspired to do but didn’t accomplish totally.


HEFFNER: So how do you look at realizing what is American’s left and right desire for their friends, family, and communities to have the right to health care?

BRADLEY: This is a critical piece of, I think untangling and understanding where we are with healthcare and Medicare for All, What you just said, we want our friends and family to have everything. That’s so true. What we have a really hard time and it’s very historical in the United States is really including everybody in that. We’re fine with our friends and family; we’re not so good with whomever across the country. And that othering that – our individualism is sort of a beautiful thing. But it also allows us to sort of say us and them. And when we’ve traveled to other countries that have been quite successful in covering their entire population, even for less than we do by a good bit, you know, they’re a lot better at the value of interconnectedness and community. And because you are a citizen, you get this and that is you get a job, you get healthcare, you get pre early childhood education. We’re not that good at this here. We’re much more, well we got it because we earned it, and you, I don’t know. And I think it’s because we’re so big. Race and ethnicity absolutely play into this. I mean, we just look at our country; we have so much trouble feeling “as one.” So back to what you had asked about what could Senator Warren or any of the others do to sort of bridge this? We’ve got to tap into something that we feel is our route at as Americans and what our values are that does not separate us, you know, cause individualism though we feel this, that’s not that good a value to get us through the problems that we’re having now in an interconnected, very globalized world, that individualism is probably hurting us. And yet that’s what we rally around.

HEFFNER: And systemically, is there an approach that you think would be the most responsible to achieve that ethical healthcare opportunity? I mean, is there a way to do it?

BRADLEY: Well, I think when you’re, again, you raised it, when you’re thinking about grand strategy, you have to marry two things. You have to have the big idea, but then you have to understand what is practical, what really could be accomplished. So that means contextualize and we’re in the United States. You want to move me to Norway? I’ve got other ideas. But if we’re going to be in the United States you know, I really think that the ACA and what Obama was working on was absolutely on the right path. And I think the continuing building on that and some of that’s been taken apart in this administration, putting it back together with even more focus on early childhood education and some of the social sides of our healthcare system, housing, early childhood education, nutrition.

HEFFNER: If you are going to employ a wealth tax to ensure a public option that is fair and equitable and high quality, and maybe Mayor Pete who’s talked about a more moderate approach to achieving universal healthcare, maybe he is the spokesperson for this idea, but the data came out explaining what Senator Warren’s wealth tax would mean for these billionaires. And it would mean a drop in the bucket of from X billions to Y billions. And, and you know, I think the advocates of Patriotic Millionaires and billionaires and who see the current tax situation as so disruptive to civil society recognize that people don’t fully understand what $1 billion dollars is.

BRADLEY: Mmhmmm. Right.

HEFFNER: The wealth tax is an honorable and legitimate and strategic proposal, a grand proposal. Now, whether or not it can achieve Healthcare For All, early childhood education for all, everything that everyone wants, well, that’s in dispute. What’s not in dispute is that you would have important public funds to dedicate to important public causes if you had a wealth tax.

BRADLEY: I think the jury is out. I’m sorry, I really can’t say that, oh yeah, that’s viable and we know that will work. And…

HEFFNER: We don’t know either way at this point.

BRADLEY: I just don’t think we can possibly know. And you know how markets respond to things. So once you change the rules, they’re going to be a lot of other interactions that occur that could really change the way things work too. So I think it is, there’s no way to tell it would work. If it would work, we know it would work: piece of cake, I think most people would get behind it. But is it enough? What will the unintended effects be? Unclear. And a lot of people have tried this kind of work before in our, you know, history, the idea that we have to tax the wealthy is not a new idea. And it’s been very tough to make that actually pay as much as it would need to be to cover all of the things that we want in our society. So,

HEFFNER: But no one has credibly talked about a radical step, a grand step that would equalize public utility basically, it would give people a chance. And because we’ve veered so far from the Eisenhower and Kennedy years to where we are today, maybe it’s something we ought to consider and we’ll talk more about this in 2020 as these grand strategies are underway. Thank you President,

BRADLEY: Thank you so much. Great to talk to you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/open mind to view this program online or to access over 1500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.