College Presidents Kickoff Academic Year Promoting Free Expression

September 13, 2023

To inaugurate the start of a new academic year, college presidents from across the nation utilized their convocation addresses to inspire and galvanize their respective campus communities, while also preparing the Class of 2027 to be the future leaders that our country needs.

This momentum was driven by Campus Call for Free Expression, an initiative uniting ideologically diverse college presidents to coordinate campus activities, including their own speeches, to promote free expression. Together, they are forging a shared vision for fostering freedom of expression and intellectual inquiry, along with providing the necessary tools to empower young people to become engaged citizens.

Below are the notable highlights from new student convocations delivered by Campus Call presidents.

Martha E. Pollack, President, Cornell University

“In my experience, the most complex challenges are those that arise when two deeply held values—in this case, our core Cornell values of free expression, and being a community of belonging—can sometimes be in tension with each other. But we are a community of scholars, and these are complex, messy, and deeply felt ideas that we can and must explore. And that is what we will do, in the year ahead: engage in discussion and debate, openly and with respect for each other.

Through a wide range of events, we’ll have the opportunity to explore the complexities of free expression, and how those questions interact with everything from large language models to employment law, to food science, to online speech and doxing. There will be lectures and conversations among invited speakers modeling civil discourse, and there will be music, poetry, film, and art that explore different perspectives on free expression.”

Vincent Price, President, Duke University

“We need—every one of us—to listen, without judgment, because your classmates may very well see something that you, and we, have missed. As I’ve said elsewhere, while we hold some truths to be self-evident, most are not. And an excess of moral judgment may be one of the greatest threats to our still-new century.

Yes, this can be clumsy, and not without some pain as we grow more agile and stronger—particularly living in a world more likely to respond to challenge with indignance, where contradictions are met with quick and unreflective condemnation rather than conversation. Our Duke community can respond differently, though: listening to each other, assuming always the best in each other, and being open to changing our minds when the evidence leads us to do so.”

Jonathan R. Alger, President, James Madison University

“We value and respect freedom of expression and different points of view, because after all, we’re named for James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution. It’s in our very DNA. This week, we’re joining campuses around the country committed to freedom of expression. It’s time to get out of your comfort zones and engage with new ideas and perspectives. At a time when our society is so deeply polarized, we must model how diverse people from many different backgrounds can live, work and learn together. Our democracy depends on us. We must strive to be a beacon for that more perfect Union that Madison wrote about in the Constitution. So, let’s practice skills of vigorous discussion and debate, while always remembering we’re united by our common humanity.”

Grant Cornwell, President, Rollins College

“…This campus must be a place where views of all kinds can be expressed freely, but also examined critically.  For democratic deliberation to work, free expression must also be respectful expression; free speech in the context of our mission also entails critical listening.  I hope that Rollins can be a model of a learning community composed of a great diversity of voices and points of view in active, mutual, and respectful engagement.

I want to recommend something to you which, on the face of it, might not seem like good advice.  It is this.  As you make your way in this community, I urge you to look for opportunities to listen, to spend time, ideally even to collaborate, with people who don’t think like you.”

Jonathan Holloway, President, Rutgers University

 “You are here to learn, to wrestle with ideas that are as yet unknown to you, to find your voice, and most importantly, to listen. Now, what’s so important about listening? It is not that I want you to sit back and keep your thoughts to yourself. Quite the contrary. I want you to speak up. But when you speak up, I want your comments to be informed. I want to know that your ideas have been tested against others’. I want to be reassured in the fact that you have looked at the matter before you, examined the nuances, asked if there are other perspectives to consider, and only then drawn a conclusion. This is what listening is all about: you listen in order to become a better speaker and a better thinker.”

Father John Jenkins, President, The University of Notre Dame

 “We live in a society that is currently, as many have observed, particularly fractious, polarized, and acrimonious. Moreover, in the church today, we often see the same fractiousness in bickering. Paul’s words remind us that our gifts and the differences among us are valuable only in so far as they contribute to the good of the whole and in making that contribution, they find their purpose. Of all the institutions in society today, universities rely on the contributions of the most extensive array of individuals and groups on and off campus each contributing in a different way.”

Joan Gabel, Chancellor, University of Pittsburgh

“Embrace all the different points of view you are going to encounter, the diversity of thought you are going to experience. Exercise your right to speak, debate or stand up to those that you disagree with.”

Paula Johnson, President, Wellesley College

 “In a healthy democracy, we need to tolerate and learn from an array of views, not just in our political sphere, but in our communities and lives. Free speech is a prerequisite for the inclusive excellence we strive for on campus, as well as the foundation of democratic participation.

At Wellesley, we have always taught our students that—and many of you have heard this message from me in the past. But we are teaching it with a new urgency and as an ongoing commitment, now that we have joined the Campus Call for Free Expression alongside other colleges and universities intent on restoring the fabric of American democracy.”

Additional speeches will be included as they become available.

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