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BPC Task Force Releases Strategic Roadmap for College Presidents to Bolster Campus Free Expression

Washington, DC – Today, a Bipartisan Policy Center task force, featuring former governors, college presidents, and academic and civic leaders, released a new guide for colleges to address the factors that have stifled free expression on school campuses in recent years.

The report, Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap, identifies several of the social, civic, and political challenges taking place, and outlines strategies for campuses to work through them and foster an inclusive learning community committed to open inquiry, frank discussion, and viewpoint diversity.

BPC’s Academic Leaders Task Force on Campus Free Expression is co-chaired by former governors Christine Gregoire(WA) and Jim Douglas (VT) and brought together presidents and academic leaders from public and private colleges, land-grant universities, secular and religious colleges, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and civic organizations to work on these issues.

A new national poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of BPC found that while over 80% of adults believe it’s important for colleges and universities to teach students the skills of independent thinking (88%) and working with a diverse range of people (85%), only half believe schools are doing a good job at teaching these skills. There is a noticeable gap between how Democrats believe schools are doing teaching students to think independently (70% positive rating) compared to independents (47%) and Republicans (41%), suggesting a growing political divide in how higher education is perceived by the public.

“We have seen an increasing number of lawmakers seeking to interfere with campus governance, and this should be a wake-up call to college leaders about the public’s declining trust in their institutions,” said Douglas. “But as former governors—and as a current faculty member—we think that the solutions to these issues do not come from the statehouse, but from the campuses themselves.”

Beyond the well-publicized scenes of speakers “shouted down” and a few instances of serious violence, recent surveys have found that the overall campus climate of open exchange of ideas has eroded. Many students and even faculty self-censor, while controversies over faculty research and extramural statements have created uncertainty about the boundaries of academic freedom.

“These challenges for higher education are not new; schools have found ways to uphold their institutional mission through previous social and political change,” said Gregoire. “What campus leaders need are new strategies for building trust and preparing this generation for civil discourse, citizenship, and civic leadership. We believe this report does that.”

The report is the culmination of a 12-month long effort, during which members met frequently, holding roundtables and consulting with all levels of the academic community. They examined the challenges to creating a climate of respectful discourse and analyzed strategies that have worked on theirs and other campuses.

The task force identified the active and high-profile involvement from the president, in coordination with top administrators, trustees, and faculty as essential to a successful strategy. While each campus is unique and should develop an approach tailored to its history, mission, and community, any undertaking should address these four challenges directly:

  1. Address the perceived tension that pits academic freedom and freedom of expression against diversity, equity, and inclusion in creating a respectful learning environment for all.
  2. Encourage more viewpoint diversity on campus. Exposing students to a wide range of perspectives and methods of confronting issues is essential for both a well-rounded education and as preparation for the rigors of citizenship in a diverse society.
  3. Adopt strong policies for the protection of free expression for students and faculty, to forestall hasty or ad hoc responses to controversial expression, and to defend the expression of unorthodox and controversial views.
  4. Elevate the skills and dispositions necessary to academic and civic discourse as a deliberate aim of the collegiate experience. Formal protections for free expression are necessary but insufficient to creating an open culture. We have a national civic skills deficit, which colleges and universities have an essential role in remedying.

The task force believes that, when pursued as a campus-wide strategy, this roadmap will strengthen free expression and open inquiry, bolster confidence in our nation’s colleges and universities, and prepare Generation Z as citizens and civic leaders.

In the coming months, the task force will conduct a coordinated outreach campaign to provide individual and regional briefings for school presidents and their leadership teams, present at national academic conferences, interact with student organizations, and provide support for schools implementing these strategies and recommendations on their campuses.

Members of the task force are available for interview.

BPC Materials

Report: Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap

View the Morning Consult Poll Results 

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