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BPC Conference with Academic Leaders and Free Expression: What Leaders See as Next Steps

The Spring 2020 semester will forever be known as the “pandemic semester.” It’s striking to recall that the first half of the term was entirely ordinary, with Spring Break on the horizon and students firming up summer jobs, internships, and travel.

Just before the world was upended, BPC brought together 30 college leaders from two dozen schools to discuss the crisis of free expression and share strategies to address it. Schools represented included public and private universities, as well as religiously affiliated and Hispanic-serving schools.

Leaders discussed the depth of the free expression challenge on campus, and considered data that suggest many students favor speech codes, safe spaces, and limits on expression that may offend others. Many reported that they routinely hear from their students that free expression is incompatible with a safe and diverse campus. They are actively seeking ways to assure students that campus can be safe, diverse, and inclusive while being open to wide-ranging exchange and free speech. Leaders also expressed the view that while incendiary speakers and hate-speech incidents are real problems, the deepest issues are ensuring frank, open, and respectful exchange in classrooms, dorms, and the quad as part of students’ daily experience of collegiate life.

Leaders also shared a range of strategies and lessons-learned in developing and implementing policies, programs, and curricula that addressed various aspects of free expression. Befitting a conversation about open exchange, not everyone agreed on every point. But here are strategies that were shared and discussed over the course of the day:

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Develop an overall free expression strategy grounded in the school’s mission.

As campus free expression issues have become more fraught on campuses, it is not enough to have a set of policies developed in different campus offices, or even an overall statement on free expression. Instead, schools should develop a strategy that articulates how free expression will be woven into all aspects of campus life. The strategy needs input from the provost and deans, general counsel, faculty senators, student affairs, campus police, communications, staff, and student leaders. A campus-wide strategy not only encourages proactive programming and consistency, but also enables leadership to respond to controversies—such as a speaker bent on provocation without contributing to academic discourse—in ways that ensure student safety while upholding free speech values and the school’s mission. Leaders noted that there is no such thing as an off-the-shelf strategy and described approaches grounded in campus history and traditions, as well as, for denominational colleges, their religious creed.

Introduce matriculating students to the centrality of open exchange to their college experience.

Freshmen orientation is a unique opportunity to develop shared expectations about the importance of open exchange and free expression to the truly transformative college experience students desire. Schools, such as Washington University in St. Louis, are building conversational skill development into freshmen orientation. This includes explaining why academic discussions require a multiplicity of viewpoints; that listening to someone with whom you disagree does not mean endorsing his or her ideas; and that having views challenged is to be welcomed. First Amendment Watch, a project of NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and Georgetown University’s Free Speech Project have created orientation modules that may be used free of charge.

Highlight free expression as a central academic value throughout the college experience.

While freshman orientation is a not-to-be-missed opportunity, the next years on campus must provide lived experience in the value and practice of open exchange. Among the strategies shared by leaders: incentivizing faculty members with different viewpoints to team-teach whole courses or a class series so that students observe a model of respectful disagreement—keeping the pairings over several semesters will deepen the faculty members’ classroom rapport; “tent talks” where speakers explore a big issue and students leave comment cards to share their viewpoints; forums where guest scholars and public figures with provocative views are hosted by top college leaders, signaling that the open exchange of views is a core campus value.

Directly address the skepticism that diversity, inclusion, and free speech are compatible.

Many students arrive on campus believing that a diverse and inclusive environment can only come through suppression of unsanctioned viewpoints, and that free speech is code for freely intimidating others. This is partly because Generation Z students, more than previous generations, have grown up in neighborhoods where they and their parents know few people whose views, partisanship, and news sources differ from their own. They may doubt that genuinely rich and respectful conversations across differences can occur. During their college years, students should have the opportunity to witness and participate in exchanges that challenge prior assumptions without devolving into personal attacks. Some suggested a need to create “brave spaces.”

Routinely reflect on how knowledge is acquired and what it means to be a scholar.

Many students arrive on campus placing a premium on knowledge derived from personal experience and identity, and are skeptical that someone can speak knowledgably beyond this. While experience and identity are indeed important sources of knowledge, college is an opportunity to acquire knowledge through the classroom and independent study: to learn to weigh and dispassionately assess topics beyond the speaker’s identity. Indeed, college is a curated learning experience designed in significant part to introduce students to perspectives and experiences well beyond the communities in which they were raised. Students should develop a nuanced understanding of their campus community and see themselves as student-scholars subject to academic rigor, regardless of identity group, and capable of becoming knowledgeable about a wide range of political, social, and academic topics.

Reckon with how social media has changed the college experience.

Gen Z are digital natives, for whom social media is an essential platform for political and social expression. However, too often social media encourages cheap speech: the curation of an online persona in order to call out others and discourage nuanced discussion. The pacing of social media values quick reaction over the thoughtful give-and-take of argument; it also creates community pressure to post on the day’s trending topic in order to be heard and recognized. Social media algorithms silo users into communities with similar opinions, limiting the opportunities to hear from those with very different opinions, presenting a distorted view of the range of community opinion. Schools should adhere to and strengthen their academic reward structure, rebutting the worst aspects of social media.

Support and strengthen faculty expertise in teaching fraught topics.

Faculty, especially untenured faculty, are anxious about the genuine difficulty of discussing topics such as race and inequality during this highly polarized time. The risk of a bias allegation from students who disagree with how a class discussion was handled looms large. Consequences include: students missing out on opportunities to have moderated discussions on pressing issues, students interpreting faculty reluctance as indifference, and faculty frustration that they must walk on eggshells in their own classrooms. Leaders shared how schools have developed programs for faculty to develop and disseminate classroom strategies. Faculty are also facing pressure from lawmakers: the 2019 Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism and a 2019 Florida Anti-Semitism law potentially limit protected speech critical of Israel. Colleges and universities need to provide guidance about how they will protect faculty members’ academic freedom to teach in ways that comport with this new legislation.

Support faculty academic freedom.

Faculty, like students, engage in self-censorship around their colleagues in conversations about fraught topics; on many campuses, conservative faculty feel they risk the support of colleagues if they share their views or pursue a research agenda that generates unwelcome findings. College leaders should clearly signal that, so long as scholarship is methodologically sound, faculty are free to pursue research even on controversial topics or with unpopular findings.

Communicate campus strategies and successes to off-campus constituencies, including alumni, donors, and state legislators.

Colleges and universities are among the most prestigious and authoritative institutions in American society, but recently, public confidence in higher education has slumped. Both Gallup and Pew report that the public sees campuses as politicized and restrictive of free speech. Acting on the perception that campuses do not protect open exchange, lawmakers in 18 states have passed campus free speech legislation since 2017, donors have cut their giving, and applications and enrollments have fallen at schools that experienced headline-grabbing free expression controversies. Campus leaders and their communications offices should seek opportunities to showcase their free expression policies and initiatives to convince state legislators, donors, alumni, and prospective students and their parents that they are true stewards of honest and open academic inquiry.

Over the course of the conference, leaders learned a great deal from one another and came away with new ideas about the different approaches and components to create a comprehensive strategy. Each school features a unique community, but they share the goals of carrying out the quotidian work of overcoming self-censorship, nurturing robust student engagement toward scholarly ends, and teaching the skills of respectful dialogue and disagreement.

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