The purpose of the university is to foster the next generation of independent thinkers, capable of vibrant intellectual discourse across differences. Thrust into the whirlwind of college life, many matriculating students’ only real guidance comes during first-year orientation. The beginning of college is an important time for staff and faculty to define campus culture for these new students. However, today’s students are increasingly isolating themselves from the routine debate and challenge that should characterize university life.
According to a January 2022 Knight/Ipsos poll, 65% of students “agree strongly or somewhat that their campus climate prevents some people from saying things they believe because others might find the remarks offensive.” That same study found that over 20% of students believe colleges should prohibit “biased” or “offensive” speech on campus. Surveys from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and Heterodox Academy revealed similar data, while a 2020 NBC News/Generation Lab poll showed that 46% of the class of 2025 would “probably” or “definitely” not room with a classmate who supported the opposing 2020 presidential candidate.
To help students break through echo chambers and embrace viewpoint diversity and open inquiry, many colleges and universities are addressing free expression from the moment students set foot on campus. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Academic Leaders Task Force on Campus Free Expression advises colleges to incorporate free expression into orientations to “signal the importance universities place on free expression and open inquiry, and the skills and dispositions that support it.”
Schools across the country have embraced a range of methods to bolster students’ skills for open inquiry during orientation.
Methods to Incorporate Free Expression into First-Year Orientations
Campus-wide Senior Leadership Addresses
Presidents or other senior leaders sometimes give orientation addresses promoting free speech, sending the message to students that the university’s top officials stand behind campus-wide commitments to freedom of expression. At the same time, such a powerful bully pulpit ensures that these public pronouncements will generate discussion, and even controversy, on the campus and beyond.
In 2022, Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber read Princeton’s Statement on Free Expression in front of first-year students. In 2016, Geoffrey Stone—former Provost of the University of Chicago, Dean of the University’s Law School, and co-author of the Chicago Statement—and Yale University President Peter Salovey gave free speech addresses at their respective schools. During a panel discussion early in the fall 2022 semester at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, President Janine Davidson told students that “Shutting down people’s ideas and speech is not okay.” University of Denver President Jeremy Haefner published a May 2022 community-wide letter stating that civil discourse is central to the collegiate mission.
These public statements, while effective, can also fuel controversy. Princeton students had mixed reactions to Eisgruber’s 2022 address. While one first year stated that he left the event “definitely in support of open dialogue on campus,” another first year wrote an op-ed stating: “The University has made it clear that while it may be committed to freedom of speech when it comes to right-wing controversial speakers, professors making racist remarks about students, and seminar discussions, it is not interested in cultivating an environment in which real and necessary dissent against the system is safe.” During his 2016 University of Chicago address, Geoffrey Stone responded to a letter that the university had sent to incoming first years that August. The letter, which stated that the school is committed to free expression and does not support trigger warnings, cancel culture, or safe spaces, provoked a fierce response, to which Stone clarified: “The University of Chicago neither requires nor forbids faculty members to issue [trigger] warnings.” The university forwent sending the letter in future years.
Though administrators and policymakers should be prepared for the possibility of controversy, the president’s words are among a university’s strongest tools to signal the school’s values to the community.
A selection of colleges and universities have created free expression videos, which describe principles and policies about campus speakers, student protests, classroom instruction, and more. Like commencement addresses, orientation videos represent opportunities for top university leaders to demonstrate to the entire campus community that they value free speech. Videos are easily disseminated and enjoy a long shelf-life on forums such as university websites and social media—this can be particularly helpful for schools with large student bodies.
Schools that have used this approach range from private institutions such as Washington University in St. Louis to public schools such as the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Appalachian State University. UW-Eau Claire’s 10-minute video features Chancellor James Schmitt, who commits the university to being a “champion for free expression among all of its community.” In Washington University’s orientation video, former vice chancellor for student affairs and member of BPC’s Academic Leaders Task Force Lori White moderates a conversation on free expression between students and administrators.
These videos also offer schools the chance to promote campus resources available to students. Appalachian State University’s orientation video tells students that if someone’s speech “impacts you negatively, please come to the office of the dean of students for support…If you want to learn more about freedom of speech, come to the events scheduled around Constitution Day this fall.” By referencing both administrative resources and Constitution Day, which celebrates constitutional rights, the school demonstrates that it will support students and encourage them to engage with free speech.
Other college orientations use informational modules to organize open discussions among first years. Best suited to smaller colleges or those with the human resources to supervise and guide intimate conversations, discussion sessions model for students what constructive inquiry should look like.
In 2020, Search for Common Ground and Soliya launched an orientation program called First Year Connect at campuses including SUNY Potsdam: “Over four virtual meetings [before they arrive on campus], first-year students learn to engage across racial, political, or other dividing lines, laying the foundations for a healthy campus community.” Georgetown University has created two orientation modules that include questions to guide students’ conversations on fraught topics and conclude with a “Moment of Closure and Reflection.”
First Amendment Watch at New York University and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression have also created a series of orientation modules designed to teach students about their free speech rights. Daniel Cullen, a philosophy professor at Rhodes College and a member of BPC’s Academic Leaders Task Force, included these modules in the syllabus for one of his sophomore-level courses and stated: “I think it’s vital that discussion of the principles of free speech and academic freedom become a prominent part of orientation… A school could devote an afternoon or an evening to working through all six modules.” Arizona State University uses this material as the basis for teaching sessions during its first year, graduate student, and teachers’ assistant orientations, as well as featuring the video versions of the modules on its website.
At Claremont McKenna University, orientation includes two sessions called “Dialogue Matters” and a first-year dinner, during which students read and discuss a “common read” literature selection. In May 2022, DePauw University President Lori White stated her intention to “include a session about [free expression in first-year orientation]. And we will incorporate a discussion about freedom of expression as part of faculty orientation so instructors can develop the skills to engage students in challenging conversations.” The uniting characteristic of these diverse examples is active student participation in open campus dialogue.
Other universities spotlight freedom of expression through written orientation materials. This medium offers schools the one-and-done opportunity to state their free speech principles to the entire student body, a suitable option for schools with an already robust culture of inquiry. Because this approach requires less institutional commitment than an address or video, it is likely to receive more limited engagement.
A common approach is for a school to mention free speech in its orientation packet. A page of Louisiana State University’s packet references the school’s Permanent Memorandum 79 on Free Speech and Expression, which states that “LSU unequivocally supports and endorses free speech and free expression among its students, faculty, and staff.” Similarly, a section of George Mason University’s orientation packet proclaims the school’s commitment to “protecting free speech and free expression on its campus and in its education programs.”
Other schools use this written approach, but they also ensure that students absorb the content. In August 2022, Colorado State University not only published a free speech guide titled “Talk, Talk, Talk: A Quick Guide to Free Speech at Colorado State University,” but they also included it as an insert in the August 25th edition of the school newspaper and enlisted student volunteers to distribute the guide and answer questions from passersby on CSU’s central campus. Like CSU, administrators who seek to insert written free speech materials into first-year orientation might consider multiple methods for disseminating the content to increase its reach.
Putting It All Together: Purdue University
Purdue University took nearly every model described above and combined it into an hour-long, multimedia presentation shown to students annually since 2016. Administrators should take note of this uniquely engaging and creative approach, which incorporates students, professors, administrators, senior leadership, and national figures.
During the 2017 iteration of the program, President Mitchell Daniels read from Purdue’s Commitment to Freedom of Expression. Students were shown videos of Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), Nadine Strossen, then-President Barack Obama, and others speaking about the value of free speech. Purdue upperclassmen performed scenes that brought up common questions about permitted speech on campus, which were then discussed by Purdue’s Vice President for Ethics and Compliance, Dean of Students, and a philosophy professor. President Daniels also described Purdue’s overarching goal for students: “to make you great citizens, so that when you’re sitting in this very hall to receive your diploma one day, you’re ready to go out into the world, to express your views, to engage in debate, to stand up for what you believe in.”
First-Year Programming Beyond Orientation
Orientation introduces but cannot fully develop students’ skills for conversations across differences. First-year programming, therefore, furthers the goal of orientation materials: to inspire students to engage with free speech and open inquiry throughout the year.
To help students engage with tough topics, DePauw University is piloting first-year seminars called Courageous Conversations; among these seminars are “Art, Labor, and Laziness,” “9/11 and the War on Terror,” and “Science and Religion: Conflict or Consilience.” Similarly, Austin Community College has a seminar-based program called the Great Questions Project, which satisfies the college’s “student success” requirement for new students with fewer than 12 successful college credits. Through close reading of core texts, professors teach students to “speak clearly, read carefully, reason effectively, and think creatively.”
As the number of students who arrive on campus ready to engage in open discussion and debate decreases, universities must take additional steps to expose matriculating students to higher education’s values of free expression, viewpoint diversity, and open inquiry. Orientation provides schools an opportunity to help arriving students acclimate and embrace the dynamic learning environment that forms the framework of the collegiate mission.
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