Presidents weigh in on student free speech movement
- A recent survey from the Knight Foundation revealed college students' priorities are shifting to favor diversity and inclusion over free speech. The American Council on Education conducted its own informal survey of college presidents on these results and found campus leaders recognize similarities between these results and activity on their own campuses.
- Some presidents shared the need for colleges to do a better job of making students uncomfortable with differing viewpoints, but in a responsible way. “The challenge for colleges and universities is to teach and model modes of vigorous civil discourse and debate, and to educate students about the value and importance of free speech for individuals of all backgrounds,” said James Madison University President Jonathan Alger. “As educators, we must demonstrate that free expression and inclusivity are not mutually exclusive concepts—while emphasizing that history has shown that offensive ideas cannot be suppressed or eliminated with restrictions on speech.”
- A majority of presidents rejected the notion that students are "coddled" — University of California, Merced President Dorothy Leland said using such language "infantilizes the real pain that some speech creates for marginalized communities," adding that higher ed as a whole needs to "to acknowledge that pain and harm, while doing a better job of communicating why painful and harmful speech must nonetheless be protected."
Bates College President Clayton Spencer pointed out the biases in the survey's phrasing, suggesting the results are a little misleading. "[T]he construction of many of the questions creates an opposition between the values of free speech and inclusion that runs throughout the survey and is exacerbated by the questions that use the term ‘positive’ environment in opposition to ‘free speech,’ thus potentially biasing the responses,” she said. Spencer noted that “when forced to choose between these two values, having an inclusive environment wins out by a small margin would also probably be true at Bates," but reinforced the idea that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Possibly biased results aside, free speech is the root of liberal arts training and an important element of remaining as a nonpartisan agent in a growing perception of liberal bias on college campuses. While advising, training and pleading with students to respect each other's opinions and constitutional rights, campuses also have to be aware of the political, public relations and campus safety elements connected to these efforts.
But as University of Richmond President Ronald Crutcher pointed out, many students are not quite aware of the protections and limitations of the First Amendment, and it is up to faculty and administrators on campus to bridge that knowledge gap and help them "define a ‘true threat’ [and] explain the difference between legally slanderous and merely offensive language."
One great obstacle in the campus free speech debate is that most leaders believe there is a one-size-fits-all approach to encouraging and facilitating differing views, which rarely works out for students or leaders when controversy erupts. The first step in making executive views on free speech clear is in the language used to communicate with faculty and students about campus expectations of freedom, respect and dialog from the classroom to the auditorium. Using very clear terms like "race" instead of "diversity," and "offensive" instead of "controversial" are major steps in earning the trust of the campus community while acknowledging that emotions do not supersede constitutional rights.
And then presidents have to humanize themselves in this debate. Much in the way Columbia University President Lee Bollinger used personal remarks to personalize a highly controversial campus speaker, other presidents can use their pulpit to promote free speech, while earning the respect of all sides of an issue by interpreting the meaning, value and potential harm of the same. But the ultimate aim of colleges and universities is to provide an education and equip students with the skills needed to survive in a world which will sometimes be offensive and uncomfortable, and the recognition that free speech and inclusion are not mutually exclusive also goes hand-in-hand with the responsibility of institutions to turn uncomfortable events into teachable moments.
- Higher Education Today Free expression on campus: presidents respond to 2018 Knight-Gallup survey of college students
- Education Dive Free speech or inclusion? New survey finds students want more inclusion
- Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger's introductory remarks at SIPA-World leaders forum with President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad