Leveraging free speech to prove the value of higher education
- Following a wave of free speech controversies that have rocked U.S. institutions, campus administrators have become more cautious of the need for best practices and security plans in handling situations that get out of hand, said Howard Gillman, chancellor of the University of California, Irvine, during an Association of Public and Land-grant Universities panel on Capitol Hill Thursday.
- But at the same time, Gillman told Education Dive, executives can leverage free speech activities to their benefit. "What's been helpful about these free speech debates is that it's required all of us to clarify what the whole point of a great education is," said Gillman. "And, I think ... controversy around free speech allows us to state in a more of a powerful way why we are all here — and that's to advance the liberating power of an education as giving individuals the ability to hear all ideas and assess them."
- While free speech has become "part and parcel" of the rise in views that "higher education does more harm to the country than not," campus leaders can leverage instances of free speech by "making a point of telling students why we created a great university, and we did it to educate and empower them and make them great contributors to the future of society" as they are "the best ambassadors for sharing our mission and value."
Throughout recent discussions around the Higher Education Reauthorization Act and dwindling funding for public institutions, more policymakers and sector critics have started to question the value of a liberal arts education — and, as Gillman noted during the panel, instances of free speech and protest have fed into those sentiments for many. And, this type of skepticism is going to be the greatest challenges for institutions and their ability to stay afloat, said outgoing Harvard University President Drew Faust in a taped conversation with incoming president Lawrence Bacow.
"I would say skepticism about the value of higher education, and skepticism about higher education’s product: facts, science, knowledge, an educated citizenry that is not just narrowly trained but broadly educated. We have to make a case for all of those things, and a lot of our other challenges derive from the reality that I just described," said Faust in the interview for the Harvard Gazette.
But while free speech incidents have led to executive resignations, financial setbacks and preventative costs, Gillman said executives have a chance to strategically get ahead of these incidents — leveraging them to show why higher education as a venue for democratic thinking is necessary.
"If you don't have the ability to assess argument, then you are always going to be at the whims of other people and their efforts to influence you," he said. "And I think that that is a very promising and eternal argument in favor of higher ed and most people know that, because even most people who are critical of higher ed want to make sure their kids get into university as well."
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