COLUMBIA — They call it Speakers Circle, a First Amendment gathering spot at MU where just about anything goes.
Confrontational evangelists condemn abortion and same-sex marriage. Conservative students bash President Barack Obama's bailout plan. The rhetoric is heated, and the discussions not always polite.
College campuses have long been hotbeds of activism, from Vietnam War protests a generation ago to more recent efforts to roll back affirmative action in admissions.
But a rash of confrontations in recent years has led to a nationwide effort to promote civil debate on campus. A $4 million Ford Foundation initiative that began in 2006 and was expanded this year aims to promote dialogue on college campuses after a series of clashes between liberals and conservatives.
One of the colleges taking part in the foundation's effort is MU, where a survey several years ago found widespread reports of harassment targeting minority student groups.
"We're not here to tell people what to believe and what not to believe," said Roger Worthington, the school's chief diversity officer. "The overall goal is to create safer places for the free exchange of ideas."
Missouri recently hosted a Ford Foundation "difficult dialogues" workshop for campus leaders from nine schools: Alaska-Anchorage, Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Missouri-St. Louis, Oklahoma State, Texas-Austin, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.
Participants spent four days swapping stories about volatile classroom encounters and tips on promoting academic freedom, while tolerating offensive speech without allowing racial, ethnic, cultural and religious slurs or sexually explicit remarks.
They engaged in role-playing exercises including one that simulated an unpleasant classroom encounter between an evolution-denying student and an astronomy professor struggling to control her lecture. They also learned to avoid the name-calling shout-fests that often pass for public debate on cable television and political campaigns.
"The culture wars have been ongoing in this country for many years," Worthington said. "We can't afford for the university to become a political battleground."
That's just what happened at the University of California's Irvine campus, where disputes between Jewish and Muslim student groups escalated in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001.
At the Orange County campus, vandals struck both a Holocaust memorial and a symbolic model of the barrier separating Israel and the West Bank. When some Muslim students wore garments at graduation that critics said paid tribute to the Palestinian militant group Hamas, an outside group filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.
The department refused to take up the complaint. But the tensions caused the school to hold its own "difficult dialogues" workshop, which led to the creation of several courses and public events designed to promote religious and cultural diversity.
Robert O'Neil, who heads the Ford Foundation effort, called the balancing act required of faculty members faced with divisive classroom comments a "constant dilemma."
"If you react candidly, you may stifle the student's inclination to participate," said O'Neil, the director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression. "But if you say, 'That's a great point' every time, your comments cease to have value. The issue is how to strike a balance."
In a February essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, scholars A. Lee Fritschler and Bruce L.R. Smith decried what they called "the new climate of timidity on campus," a fear among professors of appearing too liberal that prevents them from speaking out or being overly cautious when it comes to confronting intolerance — or simply ignoring controversial topics.
Such an approach deprives students of one of the fundamental college experiences: the opportunity to be exposed to intellectual ideas and philosophical approaches contradictory to their own, O'Neil said.
"As a constitutional law scholar, I have to address polygamy, faith healing and gay bishops, among other subjects," he said. "My commitment is to never avoid talking about these issues, but to do so in a way that doesn't offend students in the trenches."