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Controversy and turmoil over academic freedom and free expression, the traditional bedrocks of higher education, have intensified in recent years. Students and faculty self-censor. Speaker invitations are rescinded. Faculty members’ academic freedom in teaching, research and extramural activities is being challenged.

American higher education has historically been esteemed for its civic mission of teaching each generation how to engage in the give-and-take of robust civic argument over difficult and divisive issues. However, free expression controversies have eroded confidence in our colleges and universities as true homes to open inquiry and as forums to prepare the next generation of civic leaders. A recent national poll conducted by Morning Consult on behalf of the Bipartisan Policy Center found that while more than 80 percent of adults believe it is important for colleges and universities to teach students the skills of independent thinking (88 percent) and working with a diverse range of people (85 percent), only about half believe that colleges are doing well at teaching these skills.

There’s also a partisan edge to these opinions: when it comes to how well higher education institutions are doing in teaching independent thinking, colleges and universities receive a more favorable assessment by Democrats (70 percent positive rating) than among Independents (47 percent) and Republicans (41 percent). In short, public opinion about higher education is taking on a partisan edge, contributing to our national polarization.

In response to campus free expression controversies, we have seen an increasing number of lawmakers seek to interfere with campus governance through legislative or executive action. In the 2022 legislative sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ bill tracker, bills touching on campus free expression have already been introduced in 19 states. As former governors—one of whom has spent a decade as a faculty member—we think that the solutions to these issues do not come from the statehouse, but from campus. Campus leaders need strategies to get ahead of the curve on free expression issues to discourage legislative interference in matters that are properly matters of campus governance.  

That is why we asked the Bipartisan Policy Center, which usually focuses on Capitol Hill and statehouses, to turn its attention to college campuses and recruit a task force of academic leaders to address these issues from the inside out. As former governors from both parties, we are honored to co-chair the task force.  

The BPC Academic Leaders Task Force on Campus Free Expression is comprised of a diverse range of academic and civic leaders with distinguished records of engaging free expression controversies, including a recent college graduate as well as presidents and academic leaders who serve or have served at a wide range of higher education institutions. Meeting frequently and virtually over the course of a year, the task force discussed articles, surveys and reports on free expression issues and heard from a panel of students.

The result is a unanimous report (a rarity for group deliberations like this) written to be a strategic guide for campus leaders, “Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap.”

One focus for the task force was understanding why fostering a culture of free expression has become increasingly difficult as Generation Z has arrived on campuses. This generation has grown up in increasingly homogeneous neighborhoods and been raised by parents who actively curate their experiences, with the result that many students arrive on increasingly diverse campuses with little experience relating to those whose socioeconomic backgrounds, news sources, political views and race differ from their own. Social media and national polarization make it harder to have thoughtful campus conversations across differences.

Our chief focus was to discern what has worked to establish a culture of open inquiry, frank discussion and viewpoint diversity. We learned that there are common elements to a successful free expression strategy, and that it is important to tailor the strategy to the unique history and mission of a particular campus community. It’s not enough to have a free expression policy or statement. Colleges must have a deliberate plan to cultivate the skills and habits of mind to give a hearing to contrary viewpoints, disagree respectfully and find practical compromise across principled disagreement.

The report identified four main challenges facing higher education institutions, along with recommendations for action for administrators, faculty, trustees, athletic directors and coaches, and student affairs professionals.

One challenge is the perceived tension that pits academic freedom and free expression against diversity, equity and inclusion in creating a respectful environment for all students. While not ignoring that there is expression that is hurtful, we believe profoundly that free expression is an essential means to an inclusive campus in addition to being essential to the mission of higher education. After all, it is through respectful, serious conversation that we understand others’ viewpoints and we learn empathy and compassion for those different from ourselves.

The other main challenges we identify include a lack of viewpoint diversity on many campuses, the ability of a censorious minority to chill expression of opinions and self-censorship by students and faculty that subtracts from the fullest discussion of ideas and opinions.

We take encouragement from examples of college presidents and administrators who have embraced a proactive stance in getting ahead of free expression controversies, rather than regarding controversy as a problem to be avoided. We discussed cases where administrators—often the presidents themselves—successfully embraced controversy and used their leadership capital to turn controversies into “teachable moments” to build mutual respect and resiliency among students. Task force members University of Richmond president emeritus Ronald Crutcher and Dillard University president Walter Kimbrough’s experiences of how they prepared their campuses to host a transgender-movement critic and a white supremacist, respectively, were models of how campus leaders can prepare students to confront ideas with which they disagree profoundly—as they will need to be ready to do in civic affairs throughout their lives.

Faculty members are essential guides for students learning to have frank, open and respectful conversations over contentious topics. They must enjoy robust protection of their academic freedom in their classrooms, scholarship and extramural activities. Furthermore, at a time when many higher education institutions increasingly rely on contingent faculty, it is important for colleges and universities to respect the academic and expressive freedoms of all faculty.

Student affairs leaders and staff are often the “first responders” when free expression issues arise. They should consciously emphasize the skills and dispositions necessary to navigate campus conversations across differences and disagreements. One important opportunity identified in the task force’s report for student affairs leaders is to plan modules on free expression for first-year orientation programming.

The report includes a sample of tabletop exercises—hypothetical scenarios of free expression controversies—suitable for leadership teams, faculty and staff to think through how to build a campus free expression culture that suits their campus’s unique history and mission.

We are under no illusions that addressing challenges to free expression and academic freedom is an easy task in these polarized times. There are no quick fixes. Formal protections for controversial expression are necessary, but insufficient, for open inquiry. Building student resiliency for the adult world of active citizenship ultimately requires a campus culture of robust intellectual exchange, clarity, rigor, empathy, respect and humility, all of which reinforce widespread community trust. We are confident that college leaders can renew their approach to free expression and academic freedom—and hope our report will provide encouragement and support in this essential work.

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