Free speech on college campus has emerged as a new front in the culture wars. But despite what you may have heard, most university students and faculty are supportive of free speech and the robust exchange of ideas on university campuses. According to recent research by the Knight Foundation, 84 percent of students view free speech rights as critical to our democracy.
Still, college campuses are increasingly challenging places to have challenging conversations. The same study found that the percentage of students who believe that free speech rights are secure has dropped from 59 percent to 47 percent since 2019—fully 12 points. Meanwhile, the percentage of students who felt their campus climate prevents students from expressing their opinions has increased, from 54 percent to 65 percent, since 2016.
Universities need to do more to protect free inquiry and expression, which will only flourish on campuses that are clear about their purpose, driven by cultures of curiosity and intellectual humility, hold the line when controversies arise, and focus on creating communities where everybody feels a sense of connection.
How do we do this kind of work? Universities can start by laying out clearly and loudly our purpose and articulating why free inquiry and expression of ideas are crucial to our work. This should be simple: Colleges and universities exist to produce knowledge and educate students. Neither of these is possible if faculty feel a need to censor themselves and students don’t have the opportunity to voice their views, hear the views of others and engage across intellectual differences.
To this end, at Denison, the university where I am the president, our faculty wrote an academic freedom policy that is publicly available on our website and included in the student handbook. The policy outlines the importance of free expression to the mission of the university and the role of students and faculty in promoting intellectual inquiry and scholarly engagement.
The policy is direct: “Academic Freedom is the right of all members of the University to exercise the broadest possible latitude in speaking, writing, listening, challenging, and learning.” It goes on, “Academic freedom applies to views and ideas that most members of the University may consider mistaken, dangerous, and even despicable.”
It’s not just enough to state it, though; we need to build these messages into how we onboard everybody on our campus. That means talking explicitly about why free inquiry and expression of ideas are important in new student and parent orientation programs, as well as onboarding new faculty and staff.
Beyond messaging, we also need to focus on skills—skills students are not showing up on university campuses with.
This year, we used new student orientation to host a parliamentary-style debate on free speech to help students start to develop the basic skills to do this work. Our faculty have organized a speaker series called Minds Wide Open that is designed to generate opportunities for students to embrace discomfort as normal, fun and important.
The same kind of work needs to be done in classrooms. There is an art to engaging in open, fierce, and productive intellectual inquiry. Many faculty are already helping students learn to frame questions in ways that open room for inquiry rather than shutting it down, listen closely to what others can teach us, and engage effectively across intellectual differences.
But colleges could do more, especially with new faculty, to ensure they have the tools to effectively generate and manage challenging classroom conversations.
As part of this work, universities also need to hold ourselves accountable to make sure students are hearing a wide range of views and perspectives in their courses and across campus programs and events.
Despite all the groundwork, controversies will arise. When they do, the message to campus should be simple: We welcome the expression of ideas and the debate that it generates. This is a normal and important part of a university campus. We encourage everybody to listen to the arguments being made, ask hard questions, raise competing data, and see this as part of the process of how we produce knowledge and educate each other.
And we must accept that there will be tensions. The purpose of a university is not to shield students from ideas, nor is this possible in a world where all views are available to students on their phones. The role of a university is to help students develop curiosity so they can become critical thinkers, creative problem solvers, and effective communicators with the intellectual humility needed to architect their lives and contribute to society.
This means protecting faculty when issues arise in classrooms and with invited speakers. If universities don’t stand by their faculty, it is impossible for them to do their jobs effectively. The same is true with students when they make comments that others find objectionable.
But this only works if we acknowledge that there is a tension between free expression and inclusion. Most of the concerns of students and faculty are not about free speech but rather about their peers, who are made to feel unwelcome on campus.
Getting this right requires a relentless focus on connections, relationships and belonging. The more every member of a community feels valued, connected to each other and interested in learning from each other, the more free speech is valued, even when it is distasteful and challenging.
All of this is hard. But the moment universities abdicate their responsibility to create a space where questions can be raised and ideas can flourish, we cease to be the engines of knowledge and education that society depends on to advance. Everything from well-informed public policy to the next great scientific breakthrough to well-run companies and organizations depends upon it.