The Campus Speech Conundrum

The Campus Speech Conundrum

How our polarized society is affecting students and faculty

Six months after arriving at Reed College, Steve Jobs dropped out. But the freshman and future cofounder of Apple, Inc., didn’t leave campus. Instead of taking required classes, he spent the next 18 months “dropping in on the ones that looked interesting,” as he said in his famous Stanford commencement speech. Jobs attended a calligraphy class, which would deeply influence his work at Apple. “Ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me,” he told the Stanford audience. “It was the first computer with beautiful typography.”

Importance of Free Speech on College Campuses

As Jobs learned, higher education, in its purest form, is about the advancement of knowledge and “the cultivation of curiosity,” to quote early 20th century education reformer Abraham Flexner. And campuses, ideally, are safe havens to discuss, debate, and test new ideas—from philosophy to design, from governance to science. But does that academic ideal still exist? In today’s toxic, hyper-polarized environment, are institutions still providing settings that encourage open inquiry?

Current State of Free Speech on College Campuses

In some ways, free speech remains strong on American campuses. Consider these statistics:

  • A 2018 Gallup-Knight Foundation report found that 70 percent of U.S. college students supported total free speech on campus, a higher number than for the U.S. population as a whole.
  • Only 66 percent of American adults support “uninhibited discourse,” noted Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, in a June 2019 piece for The Atlantic. Yet the percentage of students supporting total free speech has dropped by eight percent since 2016.
  • Students also feel less confident about their First Amendment rights: In 2016, 73 percent of students said they thought free speech rights in the United States were secure. By 2018, that number had dipped to 64 percent.

Many institutions have strengthened their free expression policies, and that’s an important piece of the puzzle. But the underlying problem is more cultural than procedural. As outrage replaces discourse in society, the reverberations are felt on campuses—and the problem is not confined to particular political beliefs, according to Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America, an April 2019 report from PEN America. Case in point: In a July 24 story for The Washington Post, the former editor-in-chief of Liberty University’s student-run weekly newspaper revealed how the school’s administration, led by President Jerry Falwell Jr., would silence students and professors who disagreed with his pro-Trump politics, and “meddle in our coverage, revise controversial op-eds and protect its image by stripping damning facts from our stories.” Conversely, conservative speakers have been silenced by disruptive protests at institutions ranging from Middlebury College to the University of California at Berkeley. Conservatives and liberals have both launched outrage campaigns that target faculty and threaten their academic freedom, the PEN America report notes.

The Free Speech on College Campuses Debate

“Campuses have become flashpoints of umbrage,” the report’s executive summary states. “The national debate over free speech on campus has become, in the Trump era, a deeply partisan feud, with each side trying to catch the other in transgressive acts that can be amplified to rile up the faithful. It is at once a territorial conflict over which values will prevail on campus and a proxy for a much larger political battle over the future of American society.”

As the report makes clear, the growing trend of censorship and shaming is a cultural problem, not just a campus problem. Universities face similar stresses and pressures that afflict the entire country. Polarization and tribalism are rising, and our cultural and political disagreements seem increasingly bitter, angry, and loud. That fury is causing increasing cynicism among younger citizens. Americans under 30 have less confidence than older adults in key institutions and leaders, including elected officials, the military, and religious leaders, according to an August 2019 report from the Pew Research Center. Younger Americans also have less faith in their fellow citizens, whether it involves accepting election results or treating others with respect. Just how polarized are we? People were more disturbed by the thought that their child would marry someone from another political party than from another religion, a 2018 survey by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute found.

And the problem is intensifying. We are increasingly mocking or silencing opposing views rather than engaging with them. Universities are not immune to this tendency. Yet because universities prize discourse, exploration, and learning, they can be part of the solution. If institutions are swept up in waves of polarization or cater to outraged constituencies—be they left or right—they cannot equip students with the skills to handle these disputes themselves.

Speech codes, bias response teams, and other administrative-led responses to fractious tribalism on campus, although well-intentioned, do not improve these skills. They impede them. It is essential that institutions find ways to model how open inquiry enables us to learn from our differences. In June 2019, Williams College in Massachusetts, for example, adopted a series of speaker invitation guidelines to ensure that faculty and students can choose any speakers they desire if the events are conducted in an appropriate manner.

No administrator wants a protest on the quad or disruptions to the educational experience. The long-term solution, though, is not stifling disagreements but equipping students to manage them. The tools to engage with beliefs, ideas, and cultures different from our own are ones that serve students in the world beyond campus as well.

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