Harrington Shaw previously interned with the UNC Alumni Free Speech Alliance.
Trust in our higher education institutions is at an all-time low. According to Gallup, confidence in higher education has dropped from 57% to 47% among Americans with college degrees and from 67% to 50% among those with postgraduate degrees in the past eight years. This precipitous decline in institutional trust among alumni portends consequential impacts on donations and universities’ public image. Despite this decline, alumni remain dedicated to their alma maters and are essential allies in restoring trust.
Today, a new wave of alumni advocacy is growing. In recent years, numerous nonprofit alumni groups formed, primarily focused on promoting free expression, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity. Twenty of these nonprofit groups joined together under the umbrella of the Alumni Free Speech Alliance (AFSA). AFSA reportedly received membership inquiries from alumni at more than 110 universities in its first two weeks. A member organization at Cornell University states that it has more than 24,000 supporters and followers.
This alumni movement’s strong organization and rapid proliferation merit close examination. Improving public confidence will require productive engagement with this highly active constituency. Accordingly, administrators should learn to analyze and operate alongside alumni groups. The following may serve as a guide for engaging with the current alumni advocacy movement.
Background on Alumni Advocacy for Free Expression and Viewpoint Diversity
The history of American colleges and universities is filled with examples of alumni advocating for free expression, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity. As early as 1903, events such as the Bassett Affair at Trinity College, later Duke University, demonstrated the propensity of alumni to organize. After Professor John Spencer Bassett praised Booker T. Washington in a journal article, a scathing piece in the Raleigh News & Observer inspired widespread calls for his removal. Some alumni, alongside faculty and students, rallied in support of Bassett, and Trinity’s trustees rejected his resignation.
Yale University alumnus William F. Buckley Jr.’s criticism of his alma mater in God and Man at Yale (1951) catalyzed a new alumni advocacy movement. Subtitled The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom,” his denunciation of Yale’s academic trajectory sparked a national conversation about free inquiry in higher education. This raised significant skepticism among alumni, who would thereafter play a more direct role in shaping decisions on campus.
Other alumni saw donations as an opportunity to affect change. In 1992, Yale alumnus Lee M. Bass donated $20 million to expand Yale’s Western civilization curriculum to boost study of a topic he saw as underemphasized. Four years later, Bass demanded that Yale return his gift for failing to meet his curricular conditions.
Alumni have sought to influence their alma maters by attaining leadership positions. In 2006, alumni at Dartmouth College and Hamilton College attempted to place “outsider” candidates onto the schools ’governing boards in response to free speech controversies on campus. At Colgate University, a group called Students & Alumni for Colgate engaged in recruiting efforts to place alumni on the university’s advisory board. In 2021, Yale terminated its policy of allowing alumni to petition for seats on the board after an uptick in single-issue candidates.
Alumni and their allies on campus have also led efforts to establish “campus centers” to preserve traditional academic subjects. They have focused on identifying like-minded faculty to create programs for the study of Western culture, the great books, and American history, resulting in the formation of entities such as the Political Theory Project at Brown University and the Program for Constitutionalism and Democracy at the University of Virginia. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni lists dozens of these campus centers on its “Oases of Excellence” webpage.
The Contemporary Alumni Movement
Like the alumni organizations of the twentieth century, advocacy groups formed in the last four years care deeply about academic freedom and their alma mater’s reputations. They are invested in the future of their colleges, and many seek to collaborate with administrators for the benefit of their institutions. Nevertheless, understanding the origins, motivations, and methods of these organizations is essential for effective engagement.
The proliferation of alumni advocacy groups has been catalyzed by high-profile campus controversies over heckler’s vetoes and speaker disruptions, which inspired alumni to seek the codification of free speech and academic freedom principles. Alumni also voiced concerns over diversity, equity, and inclusion programming. These groups appear to concentrate their efforts on four primary objectives: freedom of speech, academic freedom, viewpoint diversity, and institutional neutrality. to concentrate their efforts on four primary objectives: freedom of speech, academic freedom, viewpoint diversity, and institutional neutrality.
Alumni groups have suggested universities adopt the Chicago Principles and the Kalven Committee Report to promote open inquiry among faculty and students. Many alumni groups’ websites feature detailed mission statements and policy objectives. Friends for Duke, for example, requests “clear statements from the University and its leadership that it will support and defend both faculty and students when their rights of free speech and academic freedom are challenged.”
Substantial fundraising and strong alumni support are enabling many alumni groups to expand and formalize their operations. The Cornell Free Speech Alliance states that it raised $250,000 in 2022. The MIT Free Speech Alliance hired the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s former vice president of programs as its executive director after receiving a $500,000 grant from the Stanton Foundation. Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse appointed an executive director and a managing director. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, which provides grants and funding to alumni groups, recently received $3 million from the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation to “address the free speech crisis” at American colleges. Administrators will need to consider how they operate alongside an alumni movement that is organized and well-funded.
Alumni Group Typology
Administrators will be ahead of the curve in effectively engaging with alumni groups if they are familiar with their typology, structure, and modes of interaction with campus leaders. Collaboration with alumni is an essential strategy in redeveloping public trust in higher education institutions.
Non-ideological free speech advocacy groups are dedicated purely to the advancement of free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity on campus through apolitical advocacy in writing and in action. For example, Princetonians for Free Speech (PFS) explicitly states its nonpartisan goals on its website and features topical articles from the political left and right. On its mission page, it writes that it “will stand up for the free speech and academic freedom of progressives, moderates, and conservatives alike.” These organizations keep their messaging focused on free expression. Similar groups include Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse, the MIT Free Speech Alliance, and the UNC Alumni Free Speech Alliance. Administrators should look for statements of non-partisanship and clear, free expression-focused mission statements to identify these groups.
Friends for Duke stands as a lone example of a university-incorporated group. While exhibiting a focused and non-ideological mission similar to groups like PFS, Friends for Duke partnered directly with the university’s general alumni association, lending an extra degree of credibility.
Adversarial free expression advocacy groups advance similar positions; however, many take a more hostile approach. Angered by campus events and their perception of disengagement by administrators, these alumni have penned denunciatory op-eds , supplied unfavorable press quotes, and used hostile rhetoric to bring attention to their concerns. For example, the Alumni Coalition for Lafayette states that part of its mission is to “challenge and dissent” from administrators’ decisions; the Cornell Free Speech Alliance asserts “Open Inquiry and Academic Freedom are under profound threat at Cornell University.”
Engaging with Alumni
Alumni groups are often eager to work collaboratively with higher education leaders. Administrators, faculty, and students have worked with alumni groups to codify free expression policies, co-host events, and establish productive lines of conversation.
Administrators worked directly with Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse (DFTD) in a collaborative campaign to create their own version of the Chicago Principles. After DFTD reached out, Davidson’s president appointed a working group consisting of faculty members, students, a trustee, and former North Carolina Governor and DFTD Boardman Jim Martin to draft the new policy. The resolution was adopted by the faculty in March of 2023.
In collaboration with the MIT Free Speech Alliance (MFSA), MIT hosted an event to debate diversity, equity, and inclusion policies. Sponsored by both left- and right-leaning organizations, the event showcased experts on both sides of the argument to demonstrate constructive discussion across differences.
Alumni offices have worked to incorporate alumni free expression advocacy group events into the agendas for reunion weekends. For example, Friends for Duke hosted a panel, “Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity at Duke – A Cancel Culture?” and Macalester Alumni of Moderation hosted a panel discussion.
Administrators also formed cordial relationships with alumni advocates at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, with the UNC Alumni Free Speech Alliance saying each time it reached out, it was “extremely pleased and grateful to be respectfully and seriously received.” Its correspondence indicates that, despite disagreements on policies, administrators, and alumni can find points of common ground and work together to better their institutions.
Good-faith reception of alumni groups by administrators can be a powerful force in fostering positive relationships. Listening to, communicating, and collaborating with alumni groups may provide administrators with a staunch ally in restoring institutional trust, despite disagreements on methods or policies. Administrators may also consider advertising their policies on free expression and academic freedom to promote trust among alumni, students, and other active constituencies.
Administrators may have more difficulty engaging with adversarial alumni groups. Meeting and cordially communicating with these alumni may aid in defusing hostile relations. As demonstrated by several universities, listening to alumni, creating working groups, and supporting on-campus events can foster positive alumni relations. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Academic Leaders Task Force on Campus Free Expression outlines specific recommendations for administrators to build public confidence in their institutions.
Alumni advocates are motivated by a desire to improve their alma maters, and many of their goals align with those of administrators. Forging constructive relationships with alumni advocacy groups can solidify them as allies in efforts in promoting free expression, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity.
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