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What We’re Reading: December 2021

Religious freedom and institutional speech are in focus in this month’s top 10 reads. Our big read features one scholar’s experience with core texts and why they are important in liberal arts education.

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Campus Happenings

Iowa Board of Regents Initiates Survey to Assess State of Free Speech on Campuses
Cleo Krejci| Iowa City Press-Citizen | November 9, 2021

At the Iowa Board of Regent’s direction, faculty, students, and staff at Iowa’s three public universities were surveyed about the state of free speech on campus. The survey asked respondents to rate “the extent to which they feel able to express opinions at their university and whether they feel faculty and administration are welcoming of differing opinions, among other questions.” The survey is part of a broader initiative by the regents’ committee on free speech, which includes a policy review and new training.

An Accreditor Tells an Institution to Do Better on Academic Freedom. Will More Follow?
Peter Bonilla | Foundation for Individual Rights in Education | November 12, 2021

The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) placed Southwest Baptist University on probation out of concern that the institution was not upholding academic freedom. In a letter to the university’s president, the accrediting agency charged that the institution was failing to comply with three of the “Core Components.” The HLC pointed to proposed policy changes “to tenure requirements, board composition, and ‘statements of faith’” that would have undermined free expression and academic freedom.

Duke Student Government Senators Uphold Veto of Students Supporting Israel After Nearly 3-Hour Session
Nadia Bey and Audrey Wang | The Chronicle | November 18, 2021

The Duke Student Government (DSG) voted 37-3, with 10 abstentions, to uphold its president’s veto of recognition of Duke Students Supporting Israel (Duke SSI). After DSG granted a charter to Duke SSI, a student took to social media to criticize the group; in turn, a member of Duke SSI responded to the critique on social media. In vetoing the Duke SSI’s charter, DSG president pointed to that social media retort, saying it was “unacceptable for any student group and appeared antithetical to the group’s stated mission to be welcoming and inclusive to all Duke students.” Duke University President Vincent Price and Provost Sally Kornbluth released a statement saying the vote “has raised concerns about whether students have been treated in accordance with University policy that prohibits discrimination and harassment, which includes anti-Semitism.”

Academic Freedom: UF Faculty Senate Study Finds Broad Fear of Reprisal for Criticism
Douglas Ray | The Gainesville Sun | December 6, 2021

An ad-hoc committee of University of Florida Faculty Senate released its report on the state of academic freedom on the campus, including freedom to engage in extramural activities. The report described instances when “faculty members said they had been discouraged from pursuing controversial areas of research, writing opinion columns for publications and other activities perceived as unpopular with politicians in Tallahassee… to a certain extent, faculty often engaged in self-censorship and chose not to ‘rock the boat’ for fear of retaliation.”

Protests Held at Boise State After Professor Says at Conference That Men, Not Women, Should Be Recruited Into Fields Like Medicine and Law
Jenn Selva and Amy Simonson | CNN | December 8, 2021

Following a Boise State University professor’s comments made at a national conference that men should be prioritized for access to STEM and professional studies, hundreds protested on campus. The university released a statement: “Boise State University understands that the open exchange of ideas, which is fundamental to education, can introduce uncomfortable and even offensive ideas… However, the university cannot infringe upon the First Amendment rights of anyone in our community, regardless of whether we, as individual leaders, agree or disagree with the message.”

Op-Eds and Thought Pieces

Anxiety About Wokeness Is Intellectual Weakness
Michael S. Roth | The New York Times | November 18, 2021

The president of Wesleyan University rejects the scapegoating of “woke college students” who are said to limit intellectual diversity on college campuses. “Those who complain of such conformity should recognize that their fear isn’t the fault of anyone’s wokeness or hostility toward free expression,” he said. “Whatever your political position, embracing intellectual diversity means being brave enough to consider ideas and practices that might challenge your own beliefs or cause you to change your views, or even your life.”

Universities Try to Force a Consensus About Kyle Rittenhouse
Conor Friedersdorf | The Atlantic | November 26, 2021

The author argues that college administrators’ statements critical of the recent acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse are illustrative of a larger trend of university leaders engaging in institutional speech on controversial social and political issues. These “ideologically selective efforts to soothe the feelings of upset faculty members and students” undermine intellectual diversity on campuses and chill the speech of students and faculty who disagree. The author recommends colleges and universities “stay neutral and promote reasoned analysis and debate.”

Alumni Withhold Donations, Demand Colleges Enforce Free Speech
Douglas Belkin | The Wall Street Journal | November 30, 2021

Recent campus controversies over free expression have spurred the formation of 20 alumni organizations to urge alumni to withhold donations to pressure their “schools to protect free speech and encourage a diverse set of views.” Responding to these alumni movements, the president of Washington and Lee University said, “We’re living in an environment where people on both sides, right and left, are engaged in a culture war and they want to use universities.”

The Long and Winding Road to Campus Illiberalism
Tevi Troy | Discourse Magazine | November 30, 2021

BPC Senior Fellow Tevi Troy writes that recent challenges to free expression on campus are only the latest episode in a longstanding struggle to safeguard expressive and academic freedom at colleges and universities. Recounting illiberalism during the McCarthyism wave of the 1950s and the rise of political correctness in the 1980s, Troy suggests: “If supporters of free speech can push back successfully, as they have in the past, we can get back to a place where campuses are, as they should be, committed to free speech, free thought and open inquiry.”

Big Read

Rescuing Socrates
Roosevelt Montás | Princeton University Press | November 16, 2021

The director of Columbia University’s Freedom and Citizenship Program provides an autobiographical account of the importance of liberal arts education in engaging students in fundamental political, religious, and philosophic texts and fostering habits of mind that serve “as guides for life.” He argues that colleges and universities must “guard against too narrow a conception of what identities our students bring with them.” While “courses that respond to and reflect the diversity of the student body are essential offerings,” curricula should center on offerings that encourage students to define for themselves “the most worthwhile way of living.”

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