Two core principles of higher education—academic freedom and free expression—are undergoing a period of great stress. There is overwhelming survey research and other evidence that the intellectual climate on many college and university campuses is being constrained. Faculty are deterred from exploring certain subjects and expressing candid opinions even off campus; students are self-censoring; outside speakers are disinvited and events are being canceled. Social media has become a megaphone that amplifies campus controversies, increasing their intensity and visibility, compressing time frames for a leadership response, and leading to investigation and sanctioning of faculty and students. The traditional understanding of free speech as a liberalizing force is itself being called into question.
The chilling of campus speech is having effects beyond the borders of the campus. Rather than alleviating the political polarization in our nation today, the inhibition of campus speech is degrading the civic mission of higher education, which is to maintain our pluralistic democracy by preparing students for civic participation as independent thinkers who can tolerate contrary viewpoints and work constructively with those with whom they have principled disagreements.
To be successful in upholding their institutional mission amid today’s changing social, civic, and political landscape, college leaders need a new roadmap for campus free expression.
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