Report Urges College Leaders to Discuss Free Speech Issues - Higher Education
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Report Urges College Leaders to Discuss Free Speech Issues

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim


College boards should make sure their institutions’ presidents are available to talk to students who want to voice concerns about campus culture and issues of free speech, a new report issued by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges states.

Presidents should also initiate communication with such students, according to the report, titled “Freedom of Speech on Campus: Guidelines for Governing Boards and Institutional Leaders.”

“Setting campus tone and culture starts at the top,” the report states. “Open conversation between presidents and those students who are committed to airing alternative opinions can go a long way in establishing trust and respect for institutional policy, even when consensus may be difficult to achieve.”

It also urges boards to “respect and champion the process of engagement by their president with students and other stakeholders who feel at risk because of campus speech policy and its application (or non-application) in particular situations.”

The AGB report is published at a “volatile” time for college campuses throughout the United States. Indeed, colleges and universities are struggling to strike the proper balance between ensuring free speech on the one hand and maintaining a civil and inclusive environment on the other.

There’s no shortage of examples in which disagreements over who should be allowed to speak on campus have resulted in protests and physicality — from arrests of protesters recently at the University of California Berkeley during a protest of conservative commentator Ben Shapiro—to the shouting down and pushing and shoving of controversial author Charles Murray and a faculty member who was interviewing him at Middlebury College last spring.

Several colleges have also recently canceled or disallowed appearances by White nationalist Richard Spencer, citing the violence that erupted at a White nationalist rally he was involved with in Charlottesville in August.

The AGB guidelines don’t proffer any foolproof methods for curtailing violence on campus. Rather, they set forth a series of things that boards should do to anticipate and mitigate situations that might unfold and result in unfavorable headlines if they are mishandled.

Balance and awareness are paramount themes in the report.

“Demands for unfettered freedom of speech can be perceived by some as at odds with the desires of students and communities for a safer, more civil environment,” the report states. “The resulting tension requires institutional leadership to be aware of the forces at play on both ends of the spectrum.”

Among other things, the report recommends that boards:

  • Be “well informed” about the rights established by the First Amendment, and its principles, and how they apply to the campus’s commitment to freedom of speech.
  • Understand and recognize the alignment between freedom of speech and academic freedom.
  • Ensure that policies that clarify campus freedom of speech rights are reflective of institutional mission and values.
  • Model civil and open dialogue themselves during board meetings.
  • Make clear their support of presidents in the implementation of campus freedom of speech policies.

The report recommends a mostly hands-off approach as college presidents deal with situations on their campuses.

“Notwithstanding the significant risks associated with some instances of campus unrest, boards should refrain from interfering while events unfold,” the report states. “In a time when news spreads almost instantly through social media, presidents must be confident that they can depend upon board support as they respond to challenges that arise —whether by reaffirming institutional policy; making tough decisions based on counsel and advice from student affairs officers or legal counsel; meeting with students about their concerns related to the scope of, or limits to, freedom of speech; or, when appropriate, declining to engage.

“Presidents should be confident that their leadership will be trusted and respected,” the report continues. In turn, presidents should keep their boards informed as campus speech issues arise, although the report acknowledges that the need for action might preclude immediate reporting.

The guidelines also urge boards to regularly review their institutions’ free speech policies; determine how often they are apprised of specific incidents of campus freedom of speech protests or disruptions; and to consider how often they “discuss the various risks — including financial, reputational, and security risks — associated with campus free speech policies.”

Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at jabdul-alim@diverseeducation.com or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.