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Exterior views of the Missouri State Capitol building, from afar.

Higher ed’s free speech controversies must be solved on campuses, not in the statehouse.

Linda L Kung/Wikimedia Commons

Over the past several years, state lawmakers have debated a growing number of policies related to academic freedom and free expression on university campuses. While a confluence of factors has likely contributed to this increase, concerning trends on campuses related to academic freedom and groupthink may be among them:

  • Poll after poll shows students and faculty self-censor in their classrooms, fearful that they will lose their reputations or jobs.
  • Speaker disinvitations and calls for faculty dismissal have seen a steady increase over the past 20 years.
  • Prestigious journals have declared they are unwilling to publish certain controversial research.
  • Some fields have become so intellectually and ideologically lopsided that faculty worry crucial perspectives are missing from the academic discussion.
  • Administrators hired to foster inclusivity among diverse student and staff populations have violated academic freedom and worked against their stated goals.

The greatest advances in human progress—personal, social and scientific—flow from our ability to freely and productively exchange ideas and consider and challenge a diverse range of perspectives.

The concerns above threaten that process of discovery—a core function of the academy. In the urgency to address such severe challenges, it is tempting to seek out the most expedient solution. And few solutions could be more expedient than the top-down coercive power of legislation.

That’s not how truth-seeking works.

Historically, U.S. college campuses have played an especially important role in the development of new ideas and innovations. As author and professor Jonathan R. Cole has noted, the algorithm for Google, the fetal monitor, cures for childhood leukemia, methods for surveying public opinion and the concept of human capital all can trace their origins back to U.S. research universities.

These breakthroughs were made possible by the presence of diverse viewpoints. As the saying goes, nature’s solution to complex problems is diversity.

But some public officials do not see it this way.

The Problem With Legislative Intervention

According to PEN America, since January 2021, 306 bills targeting “divisive concepts” have been introduced in 45 state legislatures. Already, 87 “educational gag orders” are in effect. And at least 25 target higher education.

These orders, along with restrictive hiring policies and curriculum mandates, impact more than students and scholars. They ultimately harm everyone.

The process of knowledge building cannot be legislated for the simple reason that it is, by its nature, emergent, bottom-up. It is a goal pursued by a community with shared norms, not an end point that can be prescribed by legislatures.

Policy makers should proceed with caution. They should think through how they can incentivize open campus environments. But legislative intervention comes with real risk of turning the pursuit of truth into a partisan issue and encourages future policy makers to use the lever of the state to enact their view of what is true.

The American Association of University Professors identified the critical counterbalancing role played by universities in a democracy in a more than century-old report:

“The tendency of modern democracy is for men to think alike, to feel alike and to speak alike … An inviolable refuge from such tyranny should be found in the university. It should be an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become a part of the accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world.”

Thankfully, several organizations are modeling a better way to support such intellectual experimentation.

How to Strengthen Higher Education’s Ecosystem of Free Inquiry

To create an ecosystem of free inquiry that empowers students and faculty to pursue truth, campus leaders can first examine their own policies to ensure academic freedom and free speech are enshrined in them. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression’s Model Speech Policies are a resource for administrators and others who strive to improve their college’s student expression policies. Once implemented, campus leaders should consistently adhere to these policies.

Second, through campus programming and class discussion, administrators and professors can ensure students have ample opportunities to encounter free inquiry in action. The Institute for Citizens and Scholars helps professors, higher education leaders and young people develop the muscle for engaging a diverse range of perspectives and scholarship. Heterodox Academy is bringing faculty who are committed to respecting and encouraging viewpoint diversity into community with one another. The joint partnership of Braver Angels, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and Bridge USA brings challenging debates to college campuses, helping expose students to new and diverse views.

Finally, faculty and researchers should commit themselves to a republic of science and engage in processes that help facilitate the pursuit of truth, as opposed to producing more publications that confirm their priors. Programs like the Adversarial Collaboration Project, which help scholars with clashing views engage in practices to resolve scientific debate, and the Center for Open Science, which is working to completely overhaul the process of scholarship in pursuit of greater openness and integrity within academic research, are important tools for knowledge building and dissemination.

Admittedly, this path is harder and longer. The desire to “fix” higher education by mandate is enticing. But we must commit ourselves to the idea that the pursuit of truth must not become a partisan issue guided by mandates. To give in to such desires risks further politicizing our campuses and eroding our ability to produce new knowledge, innovations and ideas.

Ryan Stowers is executive director of the Charles Koch Foundation.

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