3 Problematic Campus Cultures

Nancy Thomas describes the campus environments to eschew, as well as those to nourish, in order to encourage free expression, inclusion and learning.

January 30, 2018

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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