College Presidents Plan Coordinated, Urgent Action To Champion Free Expression On U.S. Campuses

Diverse, new consortium seeks to uphold critical inquiry and civil discourse as central to civic preparedness 

August 15, 2023

Media contact: Andy Solomon,

Princeton, NJ, August 15, 2023 – A group of 13 presidents of diverse higher education institutions from across the country have joined together to champion free expression on their campuses at a crucial moment for American democracy. Launching coordinated yet individual campuses activities at the start of the new academic year, the Campus Call for Free Expression is an unprecedented joint effort, convened by the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, to advance the principles of critical inquiry and civil discourse that are essential to prepare young people to be the empowered citizens our country needs. Campus activities will include presidential speeches, free expression trainings, outside speakers, courses, and new artistic endeavors.  

 “It is critical to our mission as a university to think deeply about freedom of expression and the challenges that result from assaults on it, which today come from both ends of the political spectrum. Learning from difference, learning to engage with difference and learning to communicate across difference are key parts of a Cornell education. Free expression and academic freedom are the bedrock not just of the university, but of democracy,” said Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack.  

 The 13 participating Campus Call presidents lead diverse campuses: Roslyn Clark Artis, Benedict College; Hiram Chodosh, Claremont McKenna College; Martha Pollack, Cornell University; Lori White, DePauw University; Vincent Price, Duke University; Jonathan Alger, James Madison University; Grant Cornwell, Rollins College; Jonathan Holloway, Rutgers University; John Jenkins, University of Notre Dame; Joan Gabel, University of Pittsburgh; Kevin Hallock, University of Richmond; Paula Johnson, Wellesley College; and Michael Roth, Wesleyan University.  

 The Campus Call is a project of College Presidents for Civic Preparedness, a new initiative convened by The Institute for Citizens & Scholars to facilitate shared learning and greater impact through partnership toward the goal of developing college students who are ready to be empowered citizens.  

 “Higher education plays a crucial role in preparing our young people to thrive and develop the skills necessary to become empowered citizens and leaders of the future,” said Rajiv Vinnakota, president of the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. “This diverse coalition of college presidents – from institutions large and small, private and public – is united in its commitment to ensuring students are civically well-informed, productively engaged, and committed to democracy.” 

Colleges and universities are among the few places in America where people from remarkably different backgrounds, cultures, and ideologies come together to wrestle with the complexity of what it means to be a democratic community. Many college students are encountering diversity for the first time on a tangible, personal, daily basis. They have a critical opportunity to develop the skills, habits, practices and norms needed to live in a multicultural and interconnected democracy.  

 “Without including diverse people and perspectives, expression is potentially one-sided. And without adjustments to power imbalances among individuals and groups, one cannot have equal footing to debate. One of our highest priorities should be to help students develop tools to debate ideas and ensure all voices — and in particular, voices of those historically underrepresented and marginalized on our campuses — are heard and affirmed,” said DePauw University President Lori White.  

 The Campus Call welcomes different viewpoints, seeking only to uphold and advance free expression principles that foster intellectually vibrant students who can challenge existing beliefs and assumptions, gain empathy for those with differing values and views, reach informed decisions based on reasoned analysis, and contribute meaningfully to their communities.  

 “While our policies must reflect constitutional parameters as a public institution, administrators and faculty members need to articulate expectations and norms for how students should engage with us and with each other. As we prepare students for active civic engagement in a pluralistic democracy, we have a responsibility to model what vigorous, productive civil discourse looks like,” said Jonathan Alger, President of James Madison University.   

 Examples of planned Campus Call activities include: 

  • Benedict College plans a yearlong campaign on free expression and inquiry named #perspective that will include key messages, campus programming, and T-shirts, beginning during freshman orientation. 
  • Throughout the academic year, Cornell University students, faculty, and staff will come together and engage with topics of free expression and academic freedom through scholarly and creative events and activities, including debates among invited speakers who model civil discourse and exhibitions and performances. 
  • Presidents at DePauw University and Rollins College, among others, will focus their annual convocation remarks on the theme of free expression.  
  • Duke University is hosting a summer seminar for faculty, including potential course content and best practices for effectively promoting civic discussion over sensitive topics in the classroom, and its First Amendment Clinic provides law students the opportunity to work directly with clients facing free expression concerns.  
  • James Madison University is partnering with the Bipartisan Policy Center to hold a free expression training for every incoming first year and transfer student.  
  • Rutgers University’s president will teach a course on citizenship, including free expression, through the lens of public institutions. 
  • Wesleyan University’s Democracy in Action program will integrate discussions of free expression into new student orientation.  

The Campus Call website provides additional information, including a complete list of all planned activities, individual campus links where relevant, free expression principles, and free expression resources.   

The overall Campus Call initiative is funded by a grant to Citizen & Scholars from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with individual campuses providing support for their own related projects.     


The Institute for Citizens & Scholars cultivates talent, ideas, and networks that develop young people as effective, lifelong citizens. We unite the left, right, and center to develop breakthrough solutions that create stronger citizens in our country, and we bring these solutions to life by forming strategic partnerships with an intentionally diverse group of young people, scholars and education leaders, and civic and business leaders—including the 27,000 world-leading Fellows in our network. Together, we’re on a mission to ensure that Americans everywhere are civically well-informed, productively engaged, and committed to democracy.  

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
We are social investors who support democracy by funding free expression and journalism, arts and culture in community, research in areas of media and democracy, and the success of American cities and towns where the Knight brothers once had newspapers. The Knight Foundation regularly funds research on free expression, including the 2022 “College Student Views on Free Expression and Campus Speech 2022.”  

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