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Written Testimony of Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill

Before the Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities: Informational Hearing on Free Speech, Intellectual Diversity, and Quality of Higher Education

Good morning, Chairman Murphy and distinguished members of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities. I commend the committee for focusing on freedom of expression, academic freedom, and intellectual diversity as essential to the mission of the University of Wisconsin System.

My name is Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill. I am the director of the Campus Free Expression Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that actively fosters bipartisanship by combining the best ideas from both parties to promote health, security, and opportunity for all Americans.

Four years ago, the Bipartisan Policy Center took up the issue of campus free expression because—simply put—it is mission-critical for us. BPC depends on colleges and universities to prepare the next generation of bipartisan civic leaders, ready to forge constructive compromises across principled disagreement. In late 2021, BPC’s Academic Leaders Task Force on Campus Free Expression published its consensus report, Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap. The Task Force is chaired by a bipartisan pair of former governors and includes six current or former college presidents; a vice president of diversity, equity, and inclusion; a faculty member; a civic association leader and former flagship trustee; and a recent graduate.

The Task Force’s consensus report found that the chilling of campus speech is degrading higher education’s capacity to carry out its missions of research, teaching, and preparing the next generation for citizenship and civic leadership. The Task Force made recommendations for campus-wide strategies to bolster academic freedom and freedom of expression, and to prepare students as independent thinkers who can tolerate contrary viewpoints and work productively with those whose views differ from their own.

I hope our conversation today leaves you with these four takeaways:

  1. Free expression is a threatened value in our country, and the campus climate for free expression and open inquiry is under tremendous stress. It is not an exaggeration to say we have a crisis of freedom of expression.
  2. The University of Wisconsin System has taken important steps to improve the climate for free expression. In 2015, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents was one of the first public university systems to affirm its commitment to a culture of open inquiry in its Commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression (Regent Policy Document 4-21). In 2022, the UW System surveyed its students about the culture for freedom of expression and their knowledge of the First Amendment; in February 2023, it published its findings, establishing a benchmark against which it can measure initiatives to strengthen the culture for freedom of expression. The UW System is also initiating new citizenship and civic dialogue programs.
  3. Yet more can be done to foster a campus climate of open exchange, and it is best that campuses take the lead. Higher education institutions’ commitment cannot be a one-and-done at first-year orientation, or with programs that touch only some students. Campuses should adopt a campus-wide strategy, implemented through policies, programs, and curricula, and with the high-profile engagement of top leadership.
  4. Fostering a free expression campus culture requires a dual track: Policies that protect against incursions on freedom of expression and academic freedom; and also policies, programs, and curricula that build the skills and dispositions for open inquiry, giving a hearing to viewpoints with which one disagrees, and discourse across difference. It is possible to have policies that secure against the heckler’s veto and other violations of expressive freedoms without a culture of students and faculty openly debating and engaging with new or controversial ideas. It is necessary both to protect against those few who would actively shut down debate and to cultivate among everyone skills for genuine intellectual discussion. Among the top requirements for campus leaders in creating a free expression culture is addressing the perceived tension between commitments to free expression and to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
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