Admitting it the first step? College administrators acknowledge free expression deficiency

College administrators are now acknowledging they have created environments on their campuses that diminish free expression and choke intellectual liveliness. For years, the game plan was to simply disavow the stifling of free expression on college campuses, while at the same time imposing speech codes, running ideological orientation programs, and hiring faculty and student affairs staffers who all think alike. That denial strategy, however, has become unworkable as alums, prospective students and the public at large signal that the game is up.

Acknowledgement that some colleges lack true commitment to free expression, backhanded as it was, came in a report released late in the fall semester by the Academic Leaders Task Force on Campus Free Expression, an initiative of the Bipartisan Policy Center. The report was entitled, “Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap.” That such a report had to be generated is an admission that free expression principles had drifted away at many colleges and universities. There would be no need for a new roadmap if college leaders knew their current location and found it suitable.

The report is a good faith effort, on one level, to address a difficult topic. It acknowledges the importance of free expression in higher education and notes the need for viewpoint diversity on campus. Clearly, a good deal of discussion and deliberation went into the report.

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The report, however, is long on bureaucratese and short on specific fixes.

It doesn’t address how college administrations allowed free expression principles to dissipate over the last 30 years. It fails to identify the campus influences that led the descent of colleges into ideological gulags that lack viewpoint diversity and where certain voices are often stifled.

A key shortcoming is the report’s interest in balancing campus free expression with ongoing initiatives for diversity, equity and inclusion. A university can’t claim allegiance to free expression and then say “but…” The report cautiously treads onto the minefield of DEI: “There are no simple answers or strategies addressing the perceived tension that pits academic freedom and freedom of expression against diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

There should be no tension between a free expression commitment and diversity measures. Noted free expression philosopher, Frederick Schauer wrote that free expression is a fundamental principle of human dignity. It doesn’t need to be hedged against other priorities. Schauer notes that free expression actually promotes inclusion by empowering the widest range of voices. Further, Schauer pointed out that the harms of suppressing free speech outweigh the occasional adverse effects of open discussion. But robust campus debate won’t happen in an environment where students and faculty are constantly worried about violating a speech code.

The alarm about campus free speech deterioration has been sounded over the years by organizations such as the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), as well as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE’s President, Greg Lukianoff, explained the state of affairs in a recent essay, pointing out the number of colleges that impose restrictive speech codes and the alarming increase of colleges punishing professors for engaging in constitutionally protected speech. He writes, “American higher education has become too expensive, too illiberal and too conformist.” A report by FIRE last fall indicated that over 80 percent of college students nationwide say they self-censor on their own campuses.

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Conformity is bound to happen in environments where everybody is expected to think alike and where those who don’t are chilled from speaking. This is dangerous and antithetical to everything colleges once stood for. As the noted sociopolitical observer Walter Lippmann wrote a century ago, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” It appears that thinking alike is not only the effect of a stifled culture, it is the intent.

ACTA’s President Michael Poliakoff wrote in an email to membership that there is an “alumni revolution” brewing nationally of alums who expect their alma maters to protect free expression. He encouraged alums to mobilize for change at their colleges and to “make gifts contingent on these changes.”

Reestablishing an environment for intellectual liveliness and free expression in higher education will be difficult and, at times, painful. It will take more than reports and policy tweaks, as Princeton Professor of Politics Keith Whittington wrote in the Fordham Law Review, “Ultimately, realizing free speech principles on college campuses is a matter of culture as much as it is a matter of policy.”

Changing culture takes time, but time is now of the essence.

Nearly a generation of college students has graduated into the world not understanding how free expression empowers them and the society at large. A polarized nation reflects that lack of understanding.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.