Chief executives / executive directors

The best campus environments for free expression, inclusion and learning (opinion)

At the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities' national meeting a few months ago, I realized something about the current debate over free speech and inclusion at public universities. I attended a session on free expression on campus, covered by Inside Higher Ed in an article, “Tips for Handling Firebrands.” The panelists were excellent, and the discussion was informative. Yet the message was clear: under no circumstances can public universities deny access to speakers or groups who pollute the campus climate by offering no intellectual content or whose sole goal is to manufacture conflict, increase polarization and target certain groups of students with messages of hate.

The panelists seemed to agree that they have no control over common spaces on their campuses -- that these spaces are the public square, the same as Main Street or the town green. Yes, institutions could place reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on certain spaces, such as offices and dormitories. And they could probably require permits and control the time of day to prevent noise or disruption to the educational process. And professors may establish standards for content and behavior in the classroom.

But absent threats of immediate violence or safety concerns, institutions could never deny access to common spaces by people or groups because of the content of their speech, no matter how intellectually deficient, discriminatory, abhorrent or toxic.

I can’t help but wonder what happened to academic freedom and the right of a university to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught and who may be admitted to study. Doesn’t institutional academic freedom allow educators to create quality learning environments based on sound educational and pedagogical goals? My colleagues at public institutions rightfully note that this may be difficult for them since the First Amendment applies directly to them, unlike private institutions, which have more leeway. Nonetheless, learning happens beyond the classroom at all colleges and universities, public and private.

I realized that perhaps we (educators) have failed to articulate how important campus climates are to student learning, and how disruptive and unequal some climates can be. Many educational researchers, including our research institute, have documented the importance of campus climates as the foundation and context for quality learning. I am not advocating for tight regulation of speech in common areas, but I predict more conflict as educators seek to shape learning environments in this era of extreme polarization.

Having worked on free speech, inclusion and deliberative democracy with hundreds of academics and institutions for 25 years, I have observed some recurring patterns -- typical campus environments that reflect whether and how institutions approach political discussions, controversy and action. Colleges and universities are complex organizations with myriad programs and departments, but when it comes to free speech and inclusion, they often fall into one or more of these cultures (or these could be microclimates present in some schools/departments at the university and not in others).

An avoidance culture. These campuses observe the old saying “One does not discuss sex, politics or religion in polite company” and try their hardest to avoid anything that might make headlines, cause disruption or offend donors, legislators or parents. Campus forums allow panelists or speakers to make their point, followed by polite questions and answers. Some narrowly defined discussions happen in certain classes, but they are not part of the broader culture of learning or beyond-the-classroom experiences for all students.

A policing culture. In this situation, either students or administrators take on the task of defining and policing what can and cannot be said -- and in different ways. Students do not “tolerate intolerance” and will block speakers, protest the use of facilities by certain campus organizations, and seek to ostracize those with views they do not share. They are suspicious of calls for free speech as a defense for airing those views.

Another version of policing politics happens when administrators regulate every possible scenario, from chalk writings to posters. Some codes are so restrictive that thoughtless or ignorant one-time statements can be grounds for disciplinary action.

A toxic culture. Free speech becomes a free-for-all. Provocative, point-counterpoint exchanges shape this type of campus environment. Too often, members of the campus community make extreme statements that are factually outrageous or intentionally demeaning in order to antagonize other people and test the limits of free speech. One person or a small group can pollute the entire campus climate. Administrators eagerly wait for those students to graduate or such faculty members to retire.

These cultures are each problematic -- and unnecessary. Some campuses balance free speech and inclusion better than others. As part of our research, we visited some campuses that come closer to the ideal. Here are some things that they provide.

  • Attentiveness to social cohesion, particularly across social and political ideological divides. These institutions emphasize the true aim of college: to be a community of learners that share responsibility for each other’s well-being and success. Faculty members go the extra mile to help students. People care about each other, regardless of their differences. Institutions implement programs to prevent student isolation. On such campuses, people disagree, but they remain colleagues.
  • Pervasive political discussions in the classroom and beyond. Faculty members view the social identity and ideological diversity of the students as educational assets. They are skilled at facilitating discussions and treat conflict as an educational opportunity. Students are taught -- often in a core, required course -- to talk politics well. Minority perspectives are valued, but it is ideas, not individuals or their social identity or political ideology, that draw critique. Free speech is a given, but speech that disrupts the educational process or that has no educational merit is managed, not dodged.
  • Respect for students as leaders and partners in institutional affairs. Students develop political agency because they have agency on the campus. That can be through student government, leadership programs, service on committees or decision-making bodies, representation off campus (for example, with the state Legislature), or local community engagement. There are mechanisms in place to encourage student input, and when students organize or protest, the administration listens and tries to find common ground.

The goal is to educate, not regulate. Campuses can cultivate these attributes through a combination of assessment, dialogue, clarification of norms and expectations, and clear educational goals. Colleges and universities need to be able to articulate how the campus climate contributes to its learning goals. And institutions may need to develop an educational rationale for controlling intellectually deficient, discriminatory, abhorrent or toxic speech -- but, if they follow some of these recommendations, they may not even need to do so.

Nancy Thomas directs the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. The institute is a leading research center and think tank on the political learning and engagement in democracy of college and university students. Its signature initiative is the National Study of Learning, Voting and Engagement (@TuftsIDHE), which analyzes student voting at more than 1,000 U.S. colleges and universities.

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Three ways higher ed leaders can respond to declining public confidence (opinion)

Higher education leaders across the country are engaging in much hand-wringing over declining public confidence in colleges and universities. A variety of polls and surveys suggest multiple themes. Particularly prominent are findings that the value of college is declining in relation to the benefits. That reflects a belief that the cost of tuition has become excessive, combined with growing skepticism that a college degree confers economic security.

A second theme is that colleges and universities are havens for liberal ideologues whose values are at odds with those of most Americans. One recent survey found that a majority of Republicans and conservatives now think that higher education is having a negative impact on the direction of the country. A third element in the “public confidence” discussion is the perception that colleges and universities are essentially businesses, more concerned with their own well-being than with educating students or serving communities.

How alarmed should academic leaders be? After all, public regard for most institutions -- from the Congress to the media -- is not exactly high, part of a negative national mood. Buried in the survey data, in fact, are reassuring indications of underlying belief in the value of higher education. Some of the findings, moreover, particularly those related to the economic value of a college degree, appear to reflect short-term fluctuations in the economy, especially the difficult job market for college graduates after the 2008 recession. Finally, skepticism about a decline in the return on investment in higher education is misguided, although leaders need to be concerned about why such a gross misperception has gained traction and try to correct it.

Yet notwithstanding the need for caution in interpreting this or that recent poll, public attitudes toward higher education have clearly grown more skeptical, and public support less robust, over the last two or three decades. The generation of academic leaders now nearing retirement can remember a time of widespread admiration for the work of academic institutions, near universal belief in the value of a college education and generous funding from both state and federal governments.

The atmosphere in recent years has been decidedly different. During my time as Commissioner of Higher Education in Massachusetts between 2009 and 2015, I was repeatedly struck by the tepid concern for the well-being of public colleges and universities. Like many other states, Massachusetts significantly reduced support for higher education during the Great Recession and shifted more and more of the responsibility for supplying its revenues to students and families. This development produced little evident concern among state leaders or the public.

Three Recommendations

As someone who chose a career in academe because I believe the work is vital to the strength of our democracy and our economy, and essential to delivering on the promise of the American dream, I have been trying to understand how higher education has fallen so far in public regard. When I consider the three themes in the “public trust” narrative mentioned above -- skepticism about the value of a college degree, belief that academe promotes values at odds with those of many Americans and concern that our institutions are driven by self-interest rather than a commitment to improve society -- I see reflections of things I have worried about myself. I also see things that higher education can do, and emerging patterns of change, that can help recover at least some of the public support we have lost.

First, we must embrace the legitimacy of preparing young people for the workplace as part of undergraduate education. Embedded in doubts about the economic value of a college degree are perceptions that many colleges and universities, especially those that emphasize liberal education for undergraduates, do not take seriously their students’ focus on preparing for a job after graduation. There is, of course, more than a grain of truth in this perception. Champions of the liberal arts have often demonstrated disdain for the practical interests of students, and career counseling and placement offices at many colleges and universities have been neglected and marginal enterprises.

Thankfully, we are witnessing significant change in this area. Many colleges that stress liberal education -- including leading liberal arts institutions such Amherst College, Clark University and Smith College -- are seeking new ways to combine liberal learning with preparation for careers. They’ve introduced internships, made curricular adjustments and intensified use of alumni mentors, while still stressing the central (and undeniable) value of liberal learning. We are on the way to a new paradigm for undergraduate education that can align our work more closely with the reason most students enroll in our programs.

Second, we should reinvigorate academe’s historic commitment to preparing students for citizenship and modeling democratic values. The concern that higher education has become a liberal enclave is largely true, a reality that often reflects deeply held moral ideas that are inevitably associated with advanced learning. We can’t change that, and we shouldn’t. But we can -- and should -- change other things.

For starters, we should take seriously our mission to help students acquire the knowledge and skills to become active, informed participants in our civic life. This priority is fully consistent with our best traditions and can also counter the charge that academic values are at odds with patriotism. I have been encouraged by the civic learning movement within higher education in its various manifestations, but most colleges and universities need to be much more aggressive and explicit in advancing this long-neglected dimension of their mission. In addition, campus leaders must make it clear in every possible way, including when hiring faculty members -- as part of demonstrating their commitment to preparing students for life in a democracy -- that their institutions are open to a wide range of opinion on socially and politically controversial matters and will not let campus communities be dominated by intolerant ideologues.

Third, campus leaders should foreground a commitment to undergraduate education, just as hospitals, including teaching hospitals, foreground a commitment to patient care. The perception that colleges and universities have become self-interested businesses rather than institutions that serve students and communities is particularly troubling to me. I suspect many elements contribute to this perception. But among the causes may well be the de-emphasis of undergraduate education and the prioritization of research that occurred within higher education during the latter part of the 20th century, especially among the leading universities that dominate public views of our industry.

Many of the financial pressures that drive up undergraduate costs -- reduced teaching loads, expensive research facilities, financial aid for graduate students -- derive from the cost of supporting ambitious research programs that advance institutional status but are only indirectly linked with undergraduate education. The shift of emphasis toward research has encouraged faculty members to emphasize publication and grant-getting rather than teaching students, a change that subtly shifts the moral basis of academic work from serving others to advancing individual careers.

This is not intended as an argument against the importance of research and graduate education. But colleges need to make clear to the public that they are serious about teaching undergraduates -- which most people think is our primary purpose -- and do not base the price of tuition on the need to subsidize activities not clearly related to that work. I am encouraged by what I perceive to be a reassertion of concern for undergraduate teaching and learning. But colleges and universities, especially the country’s leading institutions, have a long way to go to re-establish this mission on a par with research as a widespread institutional priority.

Diminished public regard for higher education is both complex and troubling. There are no quick fixes or easy answers. But heightened attention to preparing students for life after college both as workers and as citizens, along with a more focused celebration of our commitment to undergraduate education, can help higher education regain a reputation for public purpose and with it some of the support that has slipped away.

Richard M. Freeland is president emeritus of Northeastern University and senior consultant at Maguire Associates.

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