Free speech: Can universities take back control?

The chickens have come home to roost in the campus ivory tower. Too many campus leaders did not heed the real concerns of civic leaders, parents, and alumni donors — and of many on campuses — about the state of campus free expression. They missed the wakeup call in opinion surveys showing a lack of public confidence in the direction of higher education overall and that colleges were becoming flash points of partisan polarization.

The president was emboldened to act on the wide-spread sentiment that free expression is in trouble on many campuses, and issued an executive order. Now the higher education community is under the thumb of a potentially burdensome executive order: The president has imposed new requirements to ensure that institutions that receive federal funds promote free inquiry. Depending on how this executive order is implemented, colleges and universities face the prospect of a federal bureaucracy judging how well they promote free inquiry.


Further, there is a real danger of this issue being trapped as a binary issue: Either you are with the president or against him. If support for the open exchange of ideas, and an acknowledgment that many colleges need more robust protections for free expression, is seen as equivalent to support for the president, higher education will have lost the ability to define the conversation of terms that are true to academic values.

Earlier this month, many in the higher ed community missed the chance to lead on this issue by dismissing the president’s stated intention to issue an executive order. Collegiate opinion leaders said that the president “misses the point,” or that campus free expression is already in great shape. Headlines in leading industry publications have reflected the views of many campus leaders, throwing cold water on the idea of a free speech crisis:

Campus leaders argue that students generally say they support free speech, and point out incidents of violence, heckling, and disinvitation are relatively rare, as a pure statistical matter. But judging the state of free expression on campus by the number of violent incidents is like judging urban conditions or race relations only by the number of riots. Underneath the violent and well-publicized incidents, there are serious pervasive issues tearing at the cultural fabric. Threats of violence, or actual violence, set the wrong standard for defining a crisis.


Frankly, there is a wide-spread crisis of free expression on many campuses. Although few speakers draw headlines and protests, many students, and some faculty, are self-censoring for fear of the social consequences and inviting the mob. A 2018 Gallup/Knight Foundation report found that 61 percent of students — up from 54 percent two years earlier — reported that the climate on their campus prevents people from speaking their mind. Many college faculties are unbalanced in their political views. But this isn’t an issue just for conservatives, the intolerant campus echo chambers are catching liberals in their snare, too. Cases include the California attorney general, a Democrat, being subjected to the heckler’s veto at a private liberal arts college.

Given all this, it’s no wonder many do believe campus free expression is not an entrenched value in American colleges today. University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer acknowledged earlier this month, in responding to the president’s announced intention to issue of an executive order, “The difficulty many institutions of higher education have in cultivating an environment of free expression on their respective campuses remains a serious challenge.”

Too many campus leaders did not acknowledge the problem with the candor of President Zimmer — or the presidents and boards at the more than 55 schools that have reaffirmed their commitment to free expression. The broader higher education community must regain the confidence of the public. Campus leaders must lead. It begins by acknowledging the concerns Americans have about the state of our campuses, developing policies that reinforce the values of free and open intellectual inquiry, and explaining how colleges and universities will continue to foster academic freedom.

Our last president, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama warns of a 'decade of unfair, partisan gerrymandering' in call to look at down-ballot races Quinnipiac polls show Trump leading Biden in Texas, deadlocked race in Ohio Poll: Trump opens up 6-point lead over Biden in Iowa MORE, in his 2016 Howard University commencement address, acknowledged the problem of campus free speech and defended the importance of debating ideas on campus. The current president’s many critics and opponents on college campuses should likewise be willing to look at the limitations on free and open exchange and make the case that colleges and universities are worthy of public confidence in the promotion of free expression.

Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill is director of the Campus Free Expression Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, and previously served on the faculties of St. John’s College and the College of William & Mary.