News Roundup: Campus Call for Free Expression
August 25, 2023
Last week, the Institute for Citizens & Scholars launched the Campus Call for Free Expression, a commitment by a diverse group of college presidents to urgently spotlight, uplift, and re-emphasize the principles of critical inquiry and civil discourse on their campuses. The Campus Call is centered on a coordinated set of presidential and campus activities focused on free expression that collectively amplify higher education’s role in preparing young people to be the empowered citizens our democracy needs.
Below are media highlights of the launch from publications across the county.
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.
The new effort comes at a time when colleges and universities across the country are facing multiple threats from lawmakers and others who have sought to limit what can be taught in college classrooms, dictate what must be included in college curricula, and gut the academic freedom protections associated with faculty tenure. And students – both progressives and conservatives in their political outlook – also have raised concerns recently about their ability to speak freely on many campuses, without the fear of intimidation or censure.
Though free-speech controversies are nothing new in higher ed, recent data were another motivator for the group of campus leaders. The Knight Foundation, which is funding the effort, commissioned a survey in 2022 that found opinions among Americans, including undergraduates, about the importance of the First Amendment differ wildly along political and racial lines. Students were also increasingly in favor of imposing campus restrictions on speech that targets minority groups.
The Institute for Citizens & Scholars said it is welcoming to differing viewpoints and wants to ensure college students become “empowered citizens.” The campaign is “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.”
There are no rules dictating how each campus must fulfill its commitment to free speech. Instead, each university is encouraged to “engage meaningfully in a manner appropriate to their institution.” Participating schools are creating messaging campaigns, writing convocation speeches and hosting student and faculty training seminars.
James Madison University, for example, says they plan to partner with the Bipartisan Policy Center to have “free expression training for every incoming first year and transfer student.” Similarly, Wesleyan University says they will “integrate discussions of free expression into new student orientation.” Other programs include Cornell’s planned “Year of Free Speech” and a similar effort at Benedict College. DePauw University and Rutgers University say they will “focus their annual convocation remarks on the theme of free expression,” and the president of Rutgers plans to teach a course on “citizenship, including free expression, through the lens of public institutions.”
The academic purpose of the university is twofold: first, to seek the truth; and second, to help people whose views of the truth diverge to understand one another. Neither of these goals is possible without a robust culture of free expression, which is the foundation of the shared enterprise of truth-seeking. Speaking and listening together, students (and professors) confront the breadth of human wisdom and experience. Sometimes this forces the truth-seeker to change his or her mind. Sometimes it does not. But in either case, it enhances the person’s understanding of who other people are, and why they believe what they believe.
“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,” Rajiv Vinnakota, President of the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, said in a press release announcing the launch of the Campus Call for Free Expression. “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.”
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