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The presidents of a wide-ranging group of 13 universities are elevating free speech on their campuses this academic year, as part of a new nonprofit initiative announced Tuesday to combat what organizers call dire threats to U.S. democracy.
The Campus Call for Free Expression will take different forms on different campuses. The campaign, created by The Institute for Citizens & Scholars with funding from the Knight Foundation is designed to cultivate the freedom of expression on campuses and help students work together to find solutions to complicated, divisive problems.
“The national context of the deep political polarization, the inability of people to speak across difference in constructive and civil ways, it seems to me that colleges and universities need to be the institutions at the forefront of showing a better way to do that,” said Jonathan Alger, president of James Madison University, which is participating in the initiative.
The Institute for Citizens & Scholars first convened a group of college presidents in March 2022 to discuss how to prepare students to actively participate in democracy. Eventually, the presidents and schools committed to five principles of free expression along with new, on-campus programs that each school designed themselves. Those include new training at freshman orientations, faculty seminars and convocation remarks.
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While not new, controversies around free speech at universities abound, from students protesting invited speakers to state legislatures targeting faculty tenure, and also reflect an increase in restrictions on freedom of speech more generally.
The participating schools include the University of Notre Dame, a private Catholic research school, Benedict College, a historically Black school in South Carolina, Rollins College, a small liberal arts school in Florida, and Ivy League member Cornell University, which in April announced that freedom of expression would be the theme for its 2023 school year.
Jonathan Holloway, president of Rutgers University in New Jersey and a historian of African American history, said he was motivated to join the initiative in part by what he called a growing deep disregard for American institutions.
“If I don’t speak up now on what I see that’s so concerning, if I don’t do this now, then when?” he asked, adding, “When I saw the Confederate battle flag marched through the Capitol Rotunda in January 2020, that’s when things shifted for me.”
This September, Holloway will lead a freshman course that will examine the meaning of democracy and ask students to help design a program for the university to improve civic education.
Graduates are shown before the start of the Rutgers University graduation ceremony in Piscataway, New Jersey, on May 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
For Rajiv Vinnakota, president of the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, there are two main reasons to focus civic education on college students. For many, their colleges will be the most diverse community that they’ve ever experienced and students have the potential to shift social norms as they enter public forums and start to participate in politics. He hopes that the collective commitment of these schools to fostering critical thinking and the exchange of ideas around contentious issues will encourage other institutions to join them.
“Are we able to get above the cacophony of these issues of free expression to be able to get people in general (and) leaders to be able to see that higher ed can and should play a leading and proactive and positive role in civic preparedness?” Vinnakota asked.
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The Knight Foundation provided a $250,000 grant to the institute to convene the presidents and eventually other university staff in a series of conversations over a year and a half.
“We believe in the free exchange of ideas. We believe in an informed citizenry so that the people may determine their true interest,” said Alberto Ibargüen, president of the foundation.
The nonprofit PEN America offers training to colleges and universities around cultivating an exchange of ideas as part of its work advocating for human rights and free speech. In general, Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager of its Free Expression and Education program, said that showing students why protections for free speech matter is an effective way to win over them to hearing about opposing views.
“When students learn about how writers and artists around the world have been persecuted for their free expression, they understand the ramifications of squashing another’s speech,” she said in response to emailed questions.
James Madison University is partnering with the Bipartisan Policy Center to host a training for more than 4,000 incoming students this year to prepare them for free expression on campus. The training will ask the students to participate in real time through a survey application and the school will also use their responses to help design future trainings. JMU already surveys new students about their civic engagement and repeats the assessment in their third year to measure student learning.
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Lucas Morel, a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University and chair of the Academic Freedom Alliance, said more universities and colleges should embrace a mission of cultivating the pursuit of knowledge through the airing of different ideas and arguments based on evidence. A college education is not just meant to help students get a job or gain knowledge, but also to help make them engaged citizens, he said.
“If we don’t do a good job of helping them be careful readers and careful listeners, it stands to reason that as citizens they won’t be careful listeners and careful expressors of their own thought,” he said. “And it will be difficult for us to function as a self-governing society.”