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Coming off a year of roiling campus protests, college leaders have increasingly turned to more restrictive and punitive measures to control student speech. But institutions should resist the temptation to crack down, and instead put in the community-wide work to clarify and codify their principles so as to be thoroughly prepared to defend inclusive free speech on their campuses this fall.

While in recent months, many institutions have adjusted their policies on the fly while still trying to conduct normal day-to-day operations, these ad hoc emergency measures will not necessarily be what is needed for the future. Ultimately, seeking to codify where and how protest happens or what constitutes problematic speech will mean aiming at a moving target, since next year’s controversy will be about different issues than last year’s. Furthermore, part of the point of protest is often to transgress rules and disrupt normal routines, so simply adjusting policies will not be as effective in avoiding divisive incidents as changing the culture will be. Engaging the campus broadly to build trust and shared norms around speech will be more labor-intensive, but holds the promise of not just averting crisis but also strengthening community bonds and fostering real learning.

Toward these ends, moving into the summer season of planning for the coming academic year, it is now high time for many colleges and universities to review their principles and practices around free expression, with an eye to more thoroughly clarifying campus values and norms, building consensus across the breadth of their communities, and enacting widely supported policies to ensure the maximum possible openness for discourse bounded by the requirements of safety and inclusion.

Finding Common Ground

Policies so vital to the life of an institution of higher education should be the product of wide and deep campus conversations, which take time and energy that most institutions have not had to spare over the last six months. But such statements can be invaluable if they are grounded in clearly stated shared values, rooted in campus culture and supported by key constituencies who are prepared to publicly stand behind them when crisis comes. College and university leaders can orient their communities to meet this need first by recognizing if their policies and other institutional statements sufficiently address the principles that should guide difficult conversations and controversies about campus speech. On some campuses, there may be less need for such review, while on others, these statements may be well-established but unfamiliar to current students, faculty, and staff, and on others they may never have been articulated at all.

In moments when intense public debate arises over contentious issues, it can be invaluable to academic and campus life deans, faculty leadership, presidents and other college leaders to be able to refer to previously defined statements of principles—in short, to be able to say, “As we think about this incident, let’s remember that together we adopted a statement of principles on which there is broad consensus. Now we should apply those general principles to understand and address this specific case.” Using such statements to provide lane lines for difficult conversations can be a critical first step in defusing crises, enabling discourse and listening to overcome vitriol, and ultimately using difference to foster learning.

To be successful, the process of identifying and articulating consensus around such ideals must be informed by a wide breadth of opinion, philosophy and experience from across the campus community. To the greatest extent possible, the diversity of views among students, faculty, staff, administrators and alumni should be represented. Direct involvement of senior institutional leadership, faculty and student leaders, and trustees in the process can be invaluable in conveying its importance to the wider community and ensuring that all involved understand and feel ownership of institutional decisions when a crisis comes.

While the culture of every institution is different, from a review of various college and university statements, a few value statements that may help prompt conversation among campus stakeholders might be:

  • An academic community requires robust debate for learning, and even very contrary perspectives can serve a collaborative function, helping people who differ strongly to refine their thinking.
  • In challenging views of others, we should take issue with the argument, not the person making it.
  • Every member of the campus community is entitled to be seen and heard, which requires safety.
  • The community should be united against dehumanizing language and hatred in all forms.
  • The campus culture should be open even to ideas that some may find uncomfortable or offensive, up to the point that one person’s freedom of expression infringes on the rights of others.
  • Norms and policies should be applied in the same way to all individuals and groups, without exception.

Starting with discussion of premises such as these, institutions can move to craft formal value statements, and, from there, policies that apply these principles in practice.

As challenging as this process can be, many institutions have undertaken it successfully. Ursinus College’s statement grew out of “a year of comprehensive discussions, and dozens of revisions” before being approved by the college’s Board of Trustees in May 2019. Other notable examples of value statements include the University of Mary Washington’s, which foregrounds the “inherent worth of all identities.” Ithaca College’s statement focuses on mutual care, respect, accountability and the right of all community members to thrive as their authentic selves. Mid Michigan College states an expectation of “empathy, compassion, and respect for all individuals.” And my own institution, St. Lawrence University, has a statement opposing the “unjust silencing of any voice.”

These are only a few examples; there are many more. But many institutions do not have such statements at all or have not revisited them regularly to ensure that they are well understood and supported by the current campus community. This process of creation and regular reassessment is demanding but it can foster a stronger sense of institutional identity that will yield broad benefits within the campus culture.

Campus speech issues have been a source of national attention and controversy for many years and, as a result, many institutions have gone through crises and subsequent policy review, yielding a wealth of experiences that can help others now. A range of organizations advising higher education leaders have published reports to guide those seeking to undertake the process for themselves. Just two examples include:

  • The 2021 report of the Bipartisan Policy Center entitled “Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap,” which includes extensive guidance on planning for free speech challenges in various forms, along with sample institutional statements on free expression from the Universities of Maryland and Richmond.
  • The 2020 report by NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education entitled “Free Speech and the Inclusive Campus,” which frames the question facing colleges as one of balancing concern for student care with free expression, and elaborates three approaches to campus-wide conversations that place emphasis on both of these values, and a middle path that “affirm[s] the educational value of intellectual curiosity and engaging with ideas across difference.”

An Urgent Need

The advent of social media has helped create unprecedented challenges around campus speech, and campus leaders now, perhaps most troublingly, face challenges from a new front as political officials have made higher education a symbolic lightning rod in a polarized society. The complexity of this new reality seems likely only to increase, so the need for careful and intentional crisis planning is not only greater than in the past but likely to continue growing.

To do this, however, requires having these abstract principles not only stated but widely understood and agreed to in advance, which is not an easy process. That said, not only the final product but the process of its creation will be invaluable when a crisis arises and anger over a specific event, policy, campus speaker, or other issue is running high. At those moments, referring back to shared values will not smooth over all differences of opinion, but it can help campus leaders move the conversation forward and support institutional decisions by basing the reasoning behind them on previously agreed-upon principles. And it will help guide all the campus constituencies to hold themselves and each other accountable, and to temper their statements in light of an understanding of the legitimate norms of debate.

To neglect the need for such intentional thinking about values is to risk uncertainty about first principles when clarity is needed in a crisis, as it certainly will be. The crises to come can provide opportunities for institutions of higher education to show society at large how intense but truly inclusive debate can happen in ways that both protect the participants from harm and also enable them to learn from contention. That is what we owe our students, and our democracy.

Karl K. Schonberg is a professor of government at St. Lawrence University, where he recently completed a seven-year term as vice president and dean of academic affairs.

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