Colleges Need to be Places Where All Ideas are on the Table

Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, Director of the Campus Free Expression Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, reports on how self-censorship happens on campuses, and argues that colleges should be a place for free expression and ideas.

Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill is Director of the Campus Free Expression Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) in Washington, D.C. Her organization’s mission is to bring the best ideas from both parties to advance security and opportunity for American families. A former college professor, Merrill oversaw the project’s Campus Free Expression: A New Roadmap report, which BPC released in November.

A graduate of the University of Calgary and Duke University, where she earned her PhD, Merrill explains the report’s recommendations in this conversation with Chris Walsh, Deputy Director of the Human Freedom and Women’s Initiatives at the Bush Institute, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute. She also reports on how self-censorship happens on campuses. And she explains how so many students today come from homogeneous backgrounds and lack the skills to converse with classmates from different experiences or perspectives. As she says, colleges must strive to create chances for students to exchange opinions respectfully, especially in the classroom. After all, they are a place for the free exchange of ideas.

How would you define freedom of expression?

Freedom of expression simply means the ability to offer one’s opinion without hindrance, whether in speech, through art, through non-verbal protest, or in any of the other ways that we can imagine.

The significance of freedom of expression is different in the public square than on a college campus. In the public square, we are protected by the First Amendment to say and do things and to associate with others in any way that we see fit within very, very broad limits. That is essential for realizing what we think of as the best life, and to make our society better over time.

In the public square, I can say things that are vile, hateful, poorly argued, patently untrue, and meant to provoke. It may not be good that I say those things, but I’m protected in the public square in my freedom to do so.

When we join a campus community, whether we do that as a student, faculty member, trustee, or staff member, we’ve made a voluntary choice to join a community that is committed to the advancement of understanding and the pursuit of truth. When I join that community, there’s an obligation on me to speak in a way that is truthful or is offered in the pursuit of truth, that questions, that inquires, that meets disciplinary standards of evidence, and that affirms the freedoms of others to participate in that conversation in the same way.

Freedom of expression in a purpose-driven community, like a college campus, should have a different character than the freedom that we see in the public square.

Now with that definition set out, what gave rise to your organization creating an Academic Leader’s Task Force on campus expression?

Our board and leadership were motivated by our Governors’ Council and by governors who had overseen public university systems in their states to establish the task force. We wanted to help colleges and universities prepare the next generation of bipartisan leaders who are capable of having respectful conversations and forging constructive compromises across principled disagreement.

That was the motivation and we put together a diverse group that represents the diversity of higher education today. We had two former governors — Chris Gregoire of Washington and Jim Douglas of Vermont — lead the task force. Though Douglas was a four-term governor of Vermont, he has been for a longer period a faculty member at Middlebury College, his alma mater.

We also had civic leaders, a faculty member, and a recent college graduate who’s now COO of BridgeUSA, an organization that works to depolarize college campuses. And we had leaders and presidents from a wide range of colleges and universities. We wanted a task force that represented the diversity of roles on college campuses and the diversity of institutions that we see in higher education today.

So, how and where is free speech being restricted on campuses today?

The task force’s report is a strategic guide to the challenges that the group saw on colleges and universities. Those challenges come in several forms.

One, there is a doubt that diversity, equity, and inclusion can go along with freedom of expression on campuses. Sixty six percent of students think that free speech rights are sometimes or frequently at odds with diversity and inclusion goals. That doubt and the commitment that many students rightly have to diversity and inclusion goals make them less confident in the value of freedom of expression. That’s an important challenge.

A second important challenge is the decreasing diversity of viewpoints on college campuses and the need to bring a broader range of voices and perspectives to campuses.

Third, there is a censorious minority on campuses. The Knight Foundation report found a third favor speech codes and a quarter favor disinviting speakers who may offend others. That censorious minority is far from the greater part of college campuses, but they have an outsized impact in chilling the discourse in colleges and universities.

Finally, there’s the phenomenon of self-censorship. Faculty and students hold back from expressing what they think for fear that others will disagree. That self-censorship is one of the deepest challenges for college campuses today.

This is not the first time that we have heard that inclusion and free speech seem to be at odds. My initial reaction is that seems strange. It would seem they would be complementary. You’re talking about including different opinions and ideas and people from different backgrounds and experiences. But that’s not the case, as you are finding.

It is easy to see why those values today sometimes seem at odds with one another. It’s essential for campus leaders and faculty to make the case that freedom of expression is a liberalizing and inclusive force. That’s how we are able to better understand those whose perspectives and experiences are very different from our own, if we’re able to sit down and have those difficult conversations with empathy, humility, and grace.

One example is to begin with the moment that students arrive on campus with a freshman orientation or first-year student orientation that includes a module on freedom of expression.

Colleges have a real challenge with Generation Z students coming from increasingly homogeneous neighborhoods. There’s been this demographic sorting so that people are much more likely than they were a generation ago to grow up in a neighborhood where the people have the same partisanship, read the same newspapers, and belong to the same socioeconomic class. They may not have friends and neighbors whose race is different from their own.

Then they arrive on college campuses that are more diverse than they have ever been before. And they arrive with not enough skill in having conversations with people whose viewpoints and perspectives are different from their own.

It’s incumbent on colleges and universities to build up the habits of mind and dispositions to have those conversations, as well as to build up the skills. Even the very simple verbal strategies, like when you hear something with which you disagree profoundly, rather than reacting, take a deep breath and say, “Tell me how you came to think that way” or “How did you come up with that?”

Those skills are important for students to have cultivated on their campuses.

What did you all find out about professors or students censoring themselves in classrooms or not speaking up? What were the factors?

There are a number of factors, social media being a really important one. In early 2020, University of North Carolina researchers brought out a survey in which they found that 43% of self-identified conservatives, 25% of self-identified moderates, and 10% of self-identified liberals reported that they were worried about classroom comments, not just things that they would say in the quad or in the dorm room, would be repeated on social media. That has a real chilling effect in the classroom.

Social media also is an important factor behind faculty self censorship, especially during the pandemic when things are being recorded. Professors are afraid of a little snippet being taken out of context and shared on social media.

But there are other factors, too. One of real interest to the task force is how students come to campus today as 18-year-olds placing a premium on the kinds of knowledge that come from one’s own experiences and identity. That’s a very important source of knowledge. We all learn things by doing them ourselves or by what our family background or community experience is like. But that makes it harder for people to join in a community of learners and have a shared identity in a classroom where they’re pursuing knowledge together.

The task force recommended that rather than waiting for senior or capstone classes, students have conversations in early courses for majors about how is it that I as a, say, historian, know something and am able to offer evidence that warrants a claim? Or, how is it that I’m able to do that as a sociologist?

When we come to a class, we bring different identities and experiences. But we can be historians or sociologists together. We need to find ways that we can talk together through fraught topics that help us move past being separate from one another because of our identities or experiences.

We heard a lot about how this commitment to experience and identity as a source of knowledge got in the way of classroom conversations. Sometimes students were unfairly called on to speak because of their identity. For example, what do women think? Or what is it that you as a member of this historically marginalized community think? As though somebody shouldn’t be able to say what he or she individually thinks.

At other times people felt that they were called out because they were speaking beyond their own experience and identity. Heterodox Academy in late 2020 brought out a survey that showed people feel more reluctant to speak based on their experience or their identity group. For example, straight students are more reluctant to talk about questions of sex and gender than students who have LGBTQ+ identity.

That makes it hard when you feel like you’re called upon or excluded from a conversation because of your identity or experience. Talking about how we have a shared identity as knowledge seekers is a key piece to getting beyond the self-censorship.

Is there such a thing as unacceptable speech? If so, where should that bar be set?

I want to go back to the purpose of an academic community, which is to advance knowledge. It’s a community of students, scholars, and researchers. That means we should be able to put all kinds of ideas on the table, even ones that may be offensive and provocative and potentially hurtful to others.

The purpose is to advance knowledge. That means, though, ideas should have academic merit. That’s what qualifies an idea to be part of an academic conversation.

Let me give a historical example from my graduate school alma mater, Duke University. In 1903, historian John Bassett published an article in which he praised Booker T. Washington. This was considered deeply offensive to many people in the community.

The newspapers, local politicians, the public, and parents of students called for his resignation, which Professor Bassett offered. By a vote of 18 to seven, the trustees of what was then Trinity College, now Duke University, refused to accept the resignation. For us now to think that somebody would think that praise of a Black leader was deeply offensive is incredible and offensive. Yet there was tremendous pressure to accept the resignation and Professor Bassett’s remarks were seen as deeply offensive.

This is how as a society we make progress over time.

I want to go back to the purpose of an academic community, which is to advance knowledge. It’s a community of students, scholars, and researchers. That means we should be able to put all kinds of ideas on the table, even ones that may be offensive and provocative and potentially hurtful to others.

We can think of offensive ideas being offered by provocateurs on campus in recent years, saying things like some in our society are unequal to others. Those ideas are false and offensive, and I don’t think anybody’s going to change their mind and find they’re true. But by letting very provocative ideas be offered, we advance the frontiers of knowledge and make our society better over time.

To give a parallel example from the public square, the late John Lewis was arrested many times, one of them for wearing a sign that said, “One Man, One Vote.” That was considered speech contrary to the peace. If we had agreed that is speech contrary to the public peace, that would have suppressed progress in our society. It’s through letting ideas be advanced that we have become a better, more just society.

What are a few things your report identified on how to facilitate campus expression?

The report was meant to be a strategic guide to address the challenges to open inquiry on campus, and it was meant to be very practical. There are suggestions for trustees, athletics leaders, faculty, staff, and presidential leadership teams.

One example is to begin with the moment that students arrive on campus with a freshman orientation or first-year student orientation that includes a module on freedom of expression. There’s no reason we should think they will know what it’s like to be in a campus community where any idea can be put on a table. That should be exhilarating, but that experience can be unsettling.

So, students need a first-year orientation program that talks about the value of being exposed to provocative and new ideas as an essential part of their collegiate experience. They need to begin to talk about the kinds of skills that will let them engage in those conversations.

A second idea is for campus leaders to be ready for the inevitable freedom of expression controversy. Having controversial expression is not a sign of failure. In any intellectually lively community, like any college or university should be, ideas are going to be advanced by faculty as scholars, or in the classroom, that are provocative and might cause offense. That is a sign that the community is carrying out its purpose of testing out new ideas.

We share in the report a set of tabletop exercises for trustees, leadership teams, and faculty to talk through before something happens on the campus. How would we respond to this kind of controversy?

Whether it’s a faculty member with a tweet that has people riled up, or a student putting up something in the dorm room that upsets other students in the suite or on the floor. Talk through how would we handle that. How would we affirm our commitment to freedom of expression while acknowledging stakeholder concerns? Do we have any programs that we could put in place or have in place to ready people for this kind of controversial expression?

Those exercises can be built into annual faculty retreats or trustee workshops so that new people in the campus community constantly hear how people are thinking about these situations. And what other resources are needed so that when controversy happens, we’re ready and set.

How do faculty members create classrooms where there is both openness and a respect for diverse points of view?

The classroom is the critical piece. That’s where faculty are with students and able to model and guide conversations that have wide-ranging points of view. It begins with the syllabus and having a whole range of texts and viewpoints, both different methodologies and different opinions.

More than that, have a set of practices and norms that are developed in the classroom as a community of trust. Where people learn that if they say something it’s going to get a respectful hearing, and there are lots of different pieces to that. There can’t just be a set of rules, it’s a question of culture and trust.

The classroom is the critical piece. That’s where faculty are with students and able to model and guide conversations that have wide-ranging points of view. 

Faculty members should take care in soliciting viewpoints from different people in the classroom. If they don’t hear an important viewpoint being articulated, they say, “Well, what if somebody were to say this?” They model and create that community of trust. I do think faculty are committed to doing that.

In that same University of North Carolina study, students said overwhelmingly that faculty try to create classrooms that are respectful and bring in different points of view. And the Bipartisan Policy Center commissioned a survey late last year that found students are more comfortable sharing opinions about religion, social and political topics, and cultural issues in the classroom than they are on social media. That’s a sign that faculty overwhelmingly are creating those guidelines, guardrails, and trust for those conversations to take place.