There are no good alternatives to free speech on campus (opinion)

It’s difficult to determine when discussions of controversial topics became known as hate speech on college campuses across the country. But the metamorphosis has taken place all around us, and the costs are undeniable. Open debate has morphed into self-censorship and terrified silence; what used to be celebrated as an environment of fearless questioning has become a stultifying world of repression.

Intolerance of meaningful debate comes from both sides of the political spectrum. Talk of “black lives matter” constitutes hate speech for some, while “blue lives matter” fits the bill for others. Depending on the political leanings of their particular campus, professors, staff members and students are strongly discouraged from entertaining certain topics even privately, much less discussing them publicly on campus, because these discussions make some people uncomfortable. The risks and penalties are tangible and significant, from shaming and ostracizing, to fear of loss of tenure and jobs for professors and expulsion and dismissal for anyone else.

What specific topics are off-limits on college campuses today? Consider recent examples from a Cato Institute survey of over 3,000 Americans with university experience: 40 percent would ban a speaker who says men on average are better than women at math, 51 percent would ban claims that all white people are racists, 49 percent would ban statements that Christians are backward and brainwashed, 49 percent would ban speech that criticized and disrespected police, and 41 percent would ban speakers who say undocumented immigrants should be deported.

Our concerns over these figures is not because we agree or disagree with the statements. But shouldn’t college students be exposed to arguments on both sides of these issues, as part of their journey of intellectual development?

The Cato survey reported a willingness to censor, regulate or punish a wide variety of expression people found offensive: 74 percent of respondents said universities should cancel speakers if students threaten violence, and 51 percent of those who self-identified as strongly liberal said it is “morally acceptable to punch Nazis in the face.”

When older adults think about their college experience, they remember heated debates with eye-opening proclamations that deliberately challenged preconceptions and created real discomfort along the way. An essential aspect of college was broadening students’ thinking in ways they could never have predicted. In the 1960s and ’70s, conservative administrators were taken to task for muzzling students’ free expression. Ironically, there is currently a lot of talk about free speech on college campuses, but the vast majority focuses on how to regulate it.

Meaningful debate on uncomfortable important topics is replaced by proclamations based on “lived experiences” and “emotional knowledge.” But it is impossible to refute a person’s claim of a lived experience that caused her suffering. If this rubric is how we define permissible speech, very soon nothing worthwhile qualifies. The heckler’s veto reigns supreme.

Today’s college students respond to statements that make them uncomfortable with allegations of speakers’ criminal intent. Dartmouth College students railed against an op-ed published in the school’s newspaper by undergraduate Ryan Spector (here) after he criticized the process that resulted in four men and 15 women being chosen as mentors. Spector argued this disparity was the result of a selection process “that sees race, gender and identity as dictating qualification.” More than 30 campus organizations denounced Spector, calling his piece an “attack” on women and minorities, claiming it “endangers the lives” of students, and suggesting Spector be punished for his views. Others lamented “how violent this article is,” urging the paper to retract it and require Spector to apologize and stating that allowing Spector and others like him to express their opinions endangers “the safety and well-being of marginalized students” and “only further perpetuates the culture of toxic, male, white supremacy.”

We considered these issues in a new article in Perspectives on Psychological Science on the controversies surrounding recent cancellations of campus talks. We drew mainly on psychological, legal and philosophical analyses to explain the polarization of positions, focusing on phenomena known as blind-spot bias, selective perception, motivated skepticism, my-side bias, groupthink and naïve realism, which help explain why dueling sides overestimate support for their own position and downgrade opponents’ views. In the campus disturbances, opponents did not simply interpret the same situation differently, they actually saw different things.

A number of recent campus disruptions share one or more of these biases: opponents offered different accounts about who started the violence, the role campus police played, why each side’s affiliation with a cause led to the belief that it was especially enlightened whereas opponents’ opposite affiliation led to their own flawed reasoning, why people on each side overestimated the strength of the evidence supporting their side, and whether protesters shouting down of speakers infringed on the audience’s right to hear their views or, conversely, represented exercises in their own freedom of expression. We concluded our article with recommendations to moderate positions and inculcate a campus culture of respectful debate in which no single group appoints itself the final arbiter of what can and cannot be heard.

Having one’s beliefs criticized -- even identity-forming beliefs -- is an essential aspect of a good education. College is an opportunity to confront divergent opinions, even if they make us uncomfortable; being exposed to opinions that call into question their deepest beliefs will help students develop the valuable skills needed to navigate their futures, relate to others with divergent views and contribute to society. As uncomfortable as it might be, there really is no viable alternative to allowing free speech on college campuses.

How can our colleges and universities create an open atmosphere of free speech while also respecting diversity?

First, give all sides a podium for expression. No campus group has the right to determine for the entire community what can be discussed. But protesters also have a right to be heard. Make viewpoint diversity an important component of diversity, broadly defined; ensure panels, committees and faculty and staff all contain individuals with views occupying the entire political spectrum. Psychological research shows that we all possess and must acknowledge our biases, and humility will go a long way toward accomplishing this goal. The best and most effective airing of controversy takes place within the marketplace of ideas.

Second, college experiences should involve challenges to our beliefs even when those experiences go beyond our comfort level. Colleges might begin by inculcating a culture on campus in which students are expected to become informed about controversial speakers’ views, either by listening to their arguments or by reading their positions. Role-playing exercises, in which supporters of each side are asked to switch sides, can also be valuable.

Third, similar role-playing exercises could be woven into controversial seminars in the social sciences and humanities and even in some natural sciences (e.g., on the role of humans in climate change, safety of GMOs, theory of evolution/origin of the universe, ethics of fetal stem-cell therapies, drilling in the Arctic Refuge, and CRISPR gene editing). Researching multiple sides of a contentious argument can help prevent ideological groupthink. It can even engender empathy for others and help routinize attempts to falsify one’s pet theory and supplement it with efforts to disconfirm personal bias.

Fourth, during freshman orientation at our university, students are informed about codes of conduct related to plagiarism, intoxication, sexual harassment and so forth. They must pass online tests based on curricula (e.g., These are important issues, and entering students must demonstrate that they have read and understood these codes. However, freshmen are not encouraged to think about issues related to free expression, hate speech, what constitutes “evidence” or what is and is not protected expression by campus speech codes -- as well as by the U.S. Constitution. They should be.

The take-home message from college should not be that feeling uncomfortable at hearing a collection of words strung together is grounds for censoring those words. A better lesson would be to learn to endure discomfort, to listen openly to alternative sides, and to respond with reasoned and effective counterarguments (when appropriate). College students should learn that reasonable, decent people will surely disagree with them about the ideas they hold most dear. This does not mean others are correct; they may be misguided and wrong, but the answer is not censorship.

As the philosopher John Stuart Mill noted, when we assert that a topic is too controversial to be debated, we foreclose all argument, thinking and reasoning that might ultimately derive from the unfolding debate. Considering the list of “off-limits” topics on college campuses today, we must ask if we truly want college life to deprive young minds of the opportunity to develop that would be afforded by meaningful debate on these key issues of our time.

Wendy M. Williams is director of the Cornell University Institute for Women in Science. Stephen J. Ceci is the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology at Cornell.

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Drake Defends Action on Professor in Harassment Case

After facing criticism for allowing a professor found to have harassed students to resign rather than be terminated, Drake University said this week that it handled the situation as well as it could, the Des Moines Register reported. In an email to faculty and staff members and students, President Marty Martin said there are two ways to remove a tenured professor: accepting a resignation or referring the case to a disciplinary committee in a process that would have been “protracted and stressful” for all parties.

Mahmoud Hamad, an associate professor of political science at Drake, resigned in December following reports that he spanked female students and had them sit on his lap. A university investigation found that he had “physically, sexually and verbally intimidated” some students and violated the university’s consensual relationship policy, though Hamad denied the charges.

Hamad will not teach until the resignation takes effect June 1, but students have accused the university of being secretive about the case and too easy on Hamad. They didn’t learn Hamad had stopped teaching until April, for example. Drake’s Faculty Senate in a statement condemned Hamad’s actions but supported the university’s action in the case, according to the Register.

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Harvard Will Bargain with Grad Assistant Union

Harvard University said Tuesday that it will honor the results of the recent graduate student union election and engage in collective bargaining with the new United Auto Workers-affiliated chapter. Provost Alan M. Garber said in an all-campus email that “in light of the outcome of the vote and the existing [National Labor Relations Board] precedent, Harvard is prepared to begin good-faith negotiations, guided by our fundamental commitments as an academic institution.”

Harvard’s graduate student union will represent some 5,000 teaching and research assistants on campus. Notable for its large size, the chapter is also one of the few graduate student unions on private campuses to be recognized by its administration following a 2016 NLRB decision saying that graduate students on private campus are workers entitled to collective bargaining. A group of other private institutions have since said they won’t engage in collective bargaining on the grounds that students are students and not workers, in their view. They’ve also been hopeful that the Trump-era NLRB will overturn the precedent allowing students at private institutions to unionize.

“We applaud Harvard for doing the right thing and honoring the results of our majority vote in favor of a union,” Justin Bloesch, a Ph.D. candidate in economics, said in a statement. “We look forward to negotiating with them in good faith – and making progress on issues like sexual harassment and assault, improved conditions for international workers, predictable workloads, compensation and more.”

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Indiana University inclusive access model offers road map for others

Indiana University wants other institutions to absorb insights gleaned from its fast-growing digital textbook initiative.

Colleges announce commencement speakers

  • Columbus College of Art & Design: Emily Pilloton, the designer.
  • Gallaudet University: Elizabeth A. Moore, incoming chair of social work at the university.
  • Greensboro College: Geoff Lassiter, president of the Carolina League.

Graduation Rates for Pell Recipients

Last year's upgrade of the federal government's primary higher education database for the first time allowed researchers to track graduation rates for recipients of Pell Grants. Now Third Way, a center-left think tank, has released an analysis of the new Pell graduation-rate data.

The group found that just under half of first-time, full-time Pell recipients earned a bachelor's degree within six years at the college where they first enrolled. And only 47 percent of institutions awarded degrees to more than half of the Pell recipients who initially enrolled.

"Taxpayers invest billions of dollars in Pell Grants because they provide a pathway to increased social and economic mobility for millions of low- and moderate-income students each year," Third Way said. "However, as this analysis shows, there is wide variation right now in the degree to which institutions admit and succeed with this population. This is in large part because there is little accountability to ensure our investment goes towards institutions that actually help their Pell students succeed."

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Kuh and Kinzie respond to essay questioning 'high-impact' practices (opinion)

The phrase “high-impact practice,” or HIP, found its way into the higher education lexicon more than a decade ago. The words signal the unusually positive benefits that accrue to students who participate in such an educational practice, including enhanced engagement in a variety of educationally purposeful tasks; gains in deep, integrative learning; salutary effects for students from historically underserved populations (that is, students get a boost in their performance); and higher persistence and graduation rates.

Most of the individual activities that appear on the HIPs list promulgated by the Association of American College and Universities are familiar to faculty and staff members, as almost all of the HIPs have been available on most college campuses in one form or another for decades.

Some -- such as study abroad -- are considered transformative and life changing, according to testimonials by those fortunate enough to have done them. Multiple studies of the effects of service learning over the past quarter century yielded empirical evidence of the positive effects on desired outcomes of these courses designed for students to have meaningful community service experiences that are integrated with instruction and induce them to apply what they are learning and to reflect on what they have learned and their performance in messy, unscripted situations.

And other HIPs, such as learning communities and internships, long have had enthusiastic champions. Indeed, there was enough evidence in 1999 to persuade the design team that created the first iteration of the National Survey of Student Engagement to include many of the 11 high-impact practices on its questionnaire, asking students in their first and last years of college, “Did you participate in this?”

In 2006, a systematic analysis of several years of NSSE data showed that students who reported doing one or more of these practices benefited in various desired ways. In fact, the differences between those who did an HIP and those who did not were so large that we reanalyzed the data to be sure the results were accurate. The same pattern of results advantaging students participating in HIPs over their peers emerged in subsequent analyses.

A few years later, Ashley Finley and Tia McNair affirmed that historically underserved students benefited significantly from engaging in HIPs, and that participating in multiple HIPs had cumulative, accentuating effects.

And then California State University Northridge reported that its Latino students were about 10 percent more likely to earn a baccalaureate degree in six years than their counterparts were if they did just one HIP. The cumulative effects were also evident, for Latino and other students.

These promising reports and numerous others from individual campuses along with a growing body of literature on service learning, college writing and undergraduate research, and additional research by AAC&U, NSSE and others, propelled HIPs into something of a national juggernaut.

HIPs’ work is featured at regional and national meetings of various associations. And the National Association of System Heads partnered with California State University Dominguez Hills to sponsor the first national convening of the HIPs in the States initiative.

So, imagine the surprise and perhaps dismay of enthusiasts of high-impact practices who saw the recent lead story in Inside Higher Ed “Maybe Not So ‘High Impact’?”

What? HIPs don’t matter to graduation rates at public universities? Apparently so, according to the results of a study published in the well-respected Journal of Higher Education.

As with many research studies, one could quibble with the quality of the data or the analytical methods used, and some of these challenges apply to this paper.

What is worth pondering is the study’s animating purpose: Is the mere availability of HIPs at public universities related to institutional graduation rates? There are many reasons why expecting positive findings from such an inquiry are unrealistic; central among them are that a student’s precollege academic preparation and family socioeconomic status account for the largest share of explained variance when predicting completion.

A more compelling and actionable approach to determining the value of participating in an HIP is whether the experience is linked to desired outcomes/performance/behavior (including persistence and graduation) of students who have actually done one or more HIPs compared with that of their peers who have not had such experiences.

The study featured in the article relied on aggregated institution-level data that do not match individual students, HIP participation and whether they graduated. The study used two HIP measures, one related to the extent of specific HIP offerings and one summing the measure across HIPs. This approach overlooks implementation fidelity and masks the accentuating effects of multiple HIPs on individual student outcomes.

These limitations could not be overcome by the researchers who used a small arsenal of standard statistical approaches to analyze the information accessible to them.

Indeed, the Inside Higher Ed article brings to the fore a most important but often overlooked consideration: simply offering and labeling an activity an HIP does not necessarily guarantee that students who participate in it will benefit in the ways much of the extant literature claims.

Over the past few years, we’ve emphasized that implementation quality is critical in terms of realizing the benefits of HIP participation. This is not a surprise as the caveat applies to every effort a college or university makes to engage students in meaningful, relevant learning experiences inside and outside the classroom, on and off the campus.

Campus practitioners know firsthand that some service-learning courses and internships are better designed and implemented than others. This holds for every type of HIP and just about any other college experience that matters to student learning and personal development.

For example, soon-to-be-published NSSE data about the effects of learning communities on engagement and self-reported gains show great variation between institutions. So institutional context and implementation quality matter.

Scaling HIPs effectively through curricular or graduation requirements is one way to induce widespread participation. Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis uses this approach in its RISE initiative to broaden access to a quality educational experience by expecting students to participate in research, international experiences, service learning and experiential learning.

To this end, IUPUI faculty and administrators have thoughtfully crafted experiences, supported faculty development and studied the effects of RISE experiences. Requiring student participation in one or more HIPs should be an intentional, evidence-based decision and tailored to the institutional context and its students. Simply increasing the number of available HIPs is not an effective approach to scaling.

There is much more to learn about HIPs and other college experiences that could or should have similar positive effects. Especially welcome are efforts to confirm the conditions that are associated with the depth and range of desired effects.

We’ve described many of these features elsewhere. But it is possible that some of these features, such as peer interaction, are more or less important to a certain HIP, such as an internship or other type of field experience. And while the positive effects of HIPs hold for all students when aggregated at the national level, perhaps certain students will benefit more from particular HIPs compared with others in different campus contexts.

This emphasizes the importance of being equity minded when scaling HIP participation. Which students are experiencing HIPs, and who is left out? Are underrepresented students having high-quality experiences? Access to HIPs without equitable participation is a hollow achievement.

The most recent National Institute of Learning Outcomes Assessment survey of provosts found that hundreds of colleges and universities are working to scale currently existing HIPs and add others so more students can participate in an HIP.

We owe it to our students to ensure HIPs and other innovations intended to enhance the quality of undergraduate education are implemented equitably and with fidelity so that students realize the promised benefits.

George D. Kuh is Chancellor’s Professor Emeritus at Indiana University and senior scholar at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. Jillian Kinzie is associate director of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research and senior scholar at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

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Career-services platform Handshake extends its reach

The career-services platform grows more popular with students and campus career centers as company makes changes in response to concerns about data privacy.

Win for Ashford in Battle Over GI Bill Benefits

Iowa's Supreme Court has tossed out a lower court's decision in the long-running legal battle over Ashford University's eligibility to receive Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

The state's approval agency in 2016 attempted to strike the for-profit university's eligibility, citing a previous decision by Ashford to close its physical location in the state. The university and its holding company, Bridgepoint Education, sued to block that decision, which could have meant that it would no longer be able to enroll veterans nationwide, as it had registered for GI Bill eligibility in Iowa. Arizona, however, later granted Ashford that status. But the legal battle in Iowa continued.

Last July an Iowa district court issued a setback to Ashford, dismissing its petition to block the loss of eligibility. The university later halted enrolling veterans as new students. Meanwhile, California's attorney general sued Ashford for allegedly making false promises to students, among other allegations, and Democrats in the U.S. Senate called on the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs to take additional steps to protect veterans and current members of the U.S. military who are enrolled at the university.

The for-profit appealed the district court's decision. And the state's Supreme Court last week backed its move to have the lower court's decision vacated.

The decision last week found that Eliza Ovrom, the district court judge, failed to disclose in a timely manner family ties to the state office of attorney general, which had been involved in the Ashford dispute. (Ovrom's son is an assistant attorney general who works in a child-support unit, and her husband is a consumer advocate for the state's utility board, according to the Supreme Court's ruling.)

"The issue is not whether Judge Ovrom’s ruling was correct or incorrect, but rather whether she should have been in a position to rule at all," the court said. "As in many ethical issues, it is the appearance of a lack of impartiality that is at the heart of Judge Ovrom’s failure to disclose a potential conflict. Had she done so, and assuming she would have recused herself at an earlier stage of the proceedings in response to a similar request, she would logically have not been the author of any such rulings."

Ashford can resume its legal challenge to the state's move to yank GI Bill eligibility, according to the ruling, and it will retain that eligibility for now. The university is again enrolling new students who receive GI Bill benefits.

In March the university announced that it plans to convert to a nonprofit, with Bridgepoint serving as an online program management (OPM) for Ashford and potentially other universities. Ashford's regional accreditor is expected to make the call on that attempt as soon as June.

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Colleges announce commencement speakers

  • Alverno College: Jovita Carranza, treasurer of the United States.
  • Bethel College, in Indiana: Katelyn Beaty, an editor-at-large with Christianity Today.


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