How a new Roadmap for colleges on civil dialogue can drive free expression

The Bipartisan Policy Center and a task force of higher education leaders combine to improve free speech on campuses.
By: | November 30, 2021
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Concerned with what they see as the “chilling of campus speech,” the Bipartisan Policy Center and civic leaders across higher education released new guidance on Tuesday that aims to improve academic freedom and freedom of thought that have become taboo at colleges and universities.

The report, titled Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap, offers a collection of best practices, university statements and even tabletop exercises that not only can help open dialogue among stakeholders and students but also help rebuild the public’s faith in institutions. “As a governor, I knew well how important it is to find practical compromise across principled disagreement,” said Jim Douglas (D-VT), one of two co-chairs on the Academic Leaders Task Force on Campus Free Expression, along with former Gov. Chris Gregoire (D-WA). “Faculty and campus leadership can play an essential role in helping our country transcend this polarized moment by introducing students to many strands in social and political thought so that students graduate as independent thinkers, and are able to work constructively with those with differing views.”

The Task Force notes that the polarized political climate has led to fear from students that speaking openly will result in punishment or harsh criticism. It also prompted faculty to self-censor, while their research is being more heavily scrutinized or questioned. Task Force leaders fear backlash could lead to more severe consequences as institutions position themselves on one side of the aisle or the other. “We cannot afford for higher education to become another scene of deep partisan division,” they write. “As a country, we must be better at robustly and respectfully debating difficult issues across the political spectrum, and college campuses have an essential role in achieving this civic goal.”

Creating a structure

The framework of guidance provides ideas on dialogue for various leaders – college presidents, senior leadership teams, trustees, faculty, student affairs staff, and athletic directors and coaches. Its scope ranges from the largest institutions to small ones and features insight from some of the top higher ed voices on free speech, including:

  • Ronald Crutcher, President Emeritus, University of Richmond
  • Daniel Cullen, Professor of Philosophy, Rhodes College
  • Walter Kimbrough, President, Dillard University
  • Linda Livingstone, President, Baylor University
  • Wallace Loh, Immediate Past President, University of Maryland
  • John Nunes, President, Concordia College-New York
  • Carol Sumner, Chief Diversity Officer, Texas Tech University
  • Lori White, President, DePauw University

They say four steps are necessary to create a more welcoming and proactive environment for those who don’t necessarily share the same viewpoints. As Generation Z students typically spend far more time online than their predecessors and typically grow up in more polarized environments, leaders say it is imperative to help them connect and be able to share thoughts in person.

Campus leaders also must find better ways to meld diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives with freedoms of thought and speech – as more than 75% of students say the two often clash. Helping foster “viewpoint diversity” is also critical. But none of it can be achieved, members say, without enacting powerful guidelines on free expression and then offering communities the tools to achieve it. That could mean taking the “liberal” notion of higher education and reforming it to at least include perspectives from other sides.

“Higher education institutions have a special role in America’s democracy, preparing the next generation for civic leadership and principled debate,” said Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet. “Our democracy cannot succeed if we accept the false premise that free expression is somehow at odds with cultural diversity, inclusion and individual wellbeing.”

Most experts on civil dialogue say building trust is key, and Task Force members agree. That can start with leaders being vocal and open about the inclusiveness of their campuses to embrace all ideas. They should provide necessary programming that hits all key areas, including student affairs and athletics.

That said, because each individual institution is different, they should not try to borrow specific guidance from other institutions that don’t fit with their missions. Depending on how open that dialogue is, institutions should understand that conflicts can arise and should be prepared with measures and resources to handle them, as well as provide training for leaders.