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A new road map for campus speech

A new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center seeks to bridge the campus speech divide, arguing that talking through contentious issues is a skill set that students can and should be taught—and also that academic freedom and inclusion complement each other instead of conflict.

“To be successful in upholding their institutional mission amid today’s changing social, civic and political landscape, college leaders need a new roadmap for campus free expression,” the report says. Yet instead of making a one-size-fits-all approach, it recommends a series of steps various campus constituencies should take to help their institutions arrive at healthier speech climates.

Campus presidents and their leadership teams, for instance, should “build confidence in a fair, consistent, and principled approach to free expression,” the report says. This work cannot be “passive, or rest exclusively upon policy statements, resolutions, or guidelines,” and “addressing the perceived tension between diversity, equity, inclusion, and free expression is an essential rhetorical and strategic task for campus leaders.”

‘A Terrifically Useful Document’

More specifically, the report continues, “Leaders must make a case that it is possible to achieve a campus culture in which free expression helps the cause of diversity, equity, and inclusion by building student resiliency and understanding of the range of perspectives, opinions, and experiences of others; by creating opportunities for discussion about issues where students believe academic freedom, free expression, diversity, equity, and inclusion are in tension; and by fostering a sense of inclusion in an academic community of learning and inquiry.”

Lori S. White, president of DePauw University and a member of the task force that met for a year to write the report, said during a panel discussion Tuesday about the report’s release that she recently navigated her own campus speech controversy: she said that after a professor used the N-word in a classroom context, DePauw faced calls to ban the use of the N-word on campus.

White, who is Black, responded to these calls in a campus memo at once condemning the N-word as a “despicable and hateful word that has been used throughout history to dehumanize people who look like me.” At the same time, she wrote, banning the word “raises questions as to whether books such as John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’ or Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ which I read as an English major, could still be assigned or whether a film class could watch a Dick Gregory film that I have watched many times or whether a music critique course or a student listening to music in their residence hall could listen to certain rap music artists.”

This response differs from that taken by the University of Rochester, where David Bleich, a professor of English, is suspended from teaching for saying the N-word in class. Bleich says he was reading from a short story that included the word, and then discussing the work of Randall Kennedy, a legal scholar of race and the history of the N-word itself.

Rochester did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the incident, but the Academic Freedom Alliance has called on the university to end this “violation” of Bleich’s academic freedom.

Keith Whittington, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University, and chair of the Academic Freedom Alliance’s Academic Committee, endorsed the Bipartisan Policy Center’s report after reviewing it Tuesday, calling it a “terrifically useful document.”

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The report, called “Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap,” is “admirably comprehensive in thinking about the entire university community and offers a lot of sensible suggestions for developing a more robust free speech culture on college campuses,” Whittington continued. “I wish it had addressed the specific issue of academic freedom more, but if universities were to follow through on these proposals, we should certainly expect some positive ramifications for academic freedom as well.”

The ‘Wrong Track’?

The task force, formed last year, was chaired by Democrat Chris Gregoire, chief executive of the alliance of CEOs Challenge Seattle and former governor of Washington, and Republican Jim Douglas, executive in residence at Middlebury College and former governor of Vermont. Members included four current college and university presidents, civic leaders, a faculty member, a chief diversity officer, and a recent college graduate professionally engaged in campus speech issues.

Over the course of regular meetings throughout the year, the task force considered a range of topics assigned by the BPC, from approaches campus leaders can take to ensure wide input and buy-in, to procedures that protect free expression and guidelines for weighing in on contemporary political and social issues or expressing the value of institutional neutrality.

The report is based on the experiences of and conversations among task force members, qualitative research and news about campus speech issues, and polling and other data, such as surveys by Gallup and the Knight Foundation on college students’ attitudes about campus speech.

The Bipartisan Policy Center released new data with its task force report, as well: according to a poll of more than 2,000 American adults conducted by Morning Consult on the center’s behalf, 83 percent of respondents strongly or somewhat agree it’s important that education institutions create environments where a diversity of viewpoints are expressed, and 63 percent have a lot or some trust that colleges and universities are an environment where people feel comfortable expressing their beliefs, thoughts, ideas and emotions about different issues.

Some 29 percent of respondents said colleges and universities are on the “wrong track” in their ability to create this kind of climate for campus speech. Fifty-nine percent said that it’s very important that colleges and universities teach students the ability to converse with those with whom they disagree, and 69 percent said it’s very important to teach students to think independently.

A subset of 186 respondents answered questions about their comfort level with sharing opinions about different topics in their college or university’s classrooms. Of these, 72 percent said they’re very or somewhat comfortable sharing views on politics in the classroom, and 77 percent are comfortable sharing views on cultural and social issues. Sixty-nine percent are comfortable sharing religious views.

Acknowledging that improving the campus speech climate is easier theorized than executed, the report recommends that presidents, in particular, use case studies and hypothetical scenarios to work through possible conflicts before they erupt on campus. Presidents should spend “leadership capital” to model free expression, viewpoint diversity and inclusion on a regular basis, and they should be ready to act with “confidence, clarity and due speed” when the inevitable campus free expression controversy occurs. This preparedness includes having “clear guidelines about what kinds of circumstances would be sufficient to trigger a formal investigation of expression by a member of the campus community,” along with related policies, due process protections and timelines.

Regarding controversial campus speakers, the report distinguishes between those speakers whose views have been sanctioned by peer review or service in public office and “extremist speakers, who deny the fundamental equality of all.”

In general, the report says, “guest speakers serve the campus community by bringing the opportunity to discuss and debate; controversial and academically credible speakers may serve this purpose especially well.” In these cases, a thorough major events policy, including accommodations for protest and counterevents, can “forestall the use of the heckler’s veto.” Where legal or other factors may force a campus to host someone who clearly doesn’t enrich the academic debate, “college leaders must find ways to honor their First Amendment obligations while affirming the equality of all members of the campus community.”

A Group Effort

Regarding student affairs, the report recommends that campus free expression be a focus of first-year orientation and formally addressed with students periodically thereafter. Task force members recommend training modules such as the First Amendment Watch at New York University and the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University, for instance. Members also recommend the OpenMind platform and Heterodox Academy’s “All Minus One” booklet, among other materials, to build campus speech-related skills and habits of mind.

Task force members also encourage institutions to encourage student engagement in clubs and other organizations, to bolster student confidence and resilience. When students associate with like-minded peers, the report says, they may be more prepared for the “intellectual rough-and-tumble of the classroom and the quad, where their ideas and creeds may be questioned, and where they will study, work, and play alongside those whose experiences and identities may be very different from their own.”

The report encourages students affairs professionals to make students and student groups partners in free expression programs and offerings. The document also touches on mental health services, saying that mental health supports also play a role in campus speech climates, as mental health issues “can undermine students’ ability to put forward their own line of thinking confidently and to dispute ideas with which they disagree or find offensive.”

Faculty members, meanwhile, should affirm the values of academic freedom and respectful disagreement to their students, build free expression and viewpoint diversity into the curriculum, and teach methodology and epistemology early in departmental curricula—in part to push back on what may be a growing student deference to or preference for firsthand or “lived” experience.

While identity and experience are “important sources of insight, we heard that students’ tendency to elevate such perspectives over knowledge developed on other bases can have a deleterious impact on classroom discourse, particularly when it comes to some of the most fraught topics of our time, such as race, class, sex, and gender—topics that are aspects of nearly every social science and humanities course,” the task force wrote.

Similar to the first-year orientation suggestion for students, the task force recommends that campus free expression and academic freedom policies and philosophy be a part of new faculty orientations.

Faculty peers and faculty governance bodies can also support academic freedom by “having specific strategies in place to defend controversial research and statements within the bounds of academic standards and, in the case of extracurricular statements made as citizens, First Amendment freedoms,” the report says, noting that social media has raised the profile of faculty speech while “simultaneously blurring the boundaries between speech as a faculty member and extramural speech.”

The report includes recommendations for trustees and even sports coaches, as well. Working together, the task force wrote, institutions can “rejuvenate a culture of free expression.”

Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the center’s Campus Free Expression Project, said in an interview that “we’re at a time when the country is highly polarized and people are pitted against one another, and social media encourages people being siloed.” Colleges and universities therefore “really have an important civic mission to teach people to be able to have those kinds of conversations and build up the skills that they may not arrive as 18-year-olds on campus with.”

While commitments to freedom of expression and commitments to diversity, equity and inclusion are “sometimes framed as pitted against one another,” she said, it’s also up to campus leaders to show that “free expression is ultimately a liberalizing and inclusive force.”

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