Inclusion vs free speech a challenge, say HE presidents

In a survey by the American Council on Education (ACE), 471 university and college presidents stressed the importance of both promoting an inclusive society and protecting free speech on campuses. But an overwhelming 96% said it was more important for students to be exposed to all types of speech than to “protect students by prohibiting offensive or biased speech”.

ACE’s Center for Policy Research and Strategy conducted its second national Pulse Point survey of college and university presidents in February, to explore leaders’ views and experiences on the hot issues of campus inclusion and freedom of expression.

There were responses from 471 presidents, 78% of them leaders of four-year institutions (40% public and 60% private), and the rest leading two-year institutions (97% public and 3% private). The presidents were quite evenly split between small, medium and large institutions.

Inclusion and free speech both important

Nearly all presidents believed that both promoting an inclusive society (98%) and protecting freedom of speech (98%) were extremely or very important to democracy, “reinforcing the understanding that these two concepts are not mutually exclusive”, wrote Lorelle L Espinosa, Jennifer R Crandall and Philip Wilkinson in an ACE article this month.

It was ‘extremely important’, 82% of presidents felt, to promote an inclusive society that is welcoming to diverse groups while 16% rated this ‘very important’ to democracy. There was slightly lower emphasis on protecting citizens’ free speech rights, which 74% of presidents said was ‘extremely important’ while 24% replied this was ‘very important’.

Similarly, almost all presidents agreed on the role of higher education in protecting free speech, the survey found.

“An overwhelming 96% said it is more important for colleges to allow students to be exposed to all types of speech even if they may find it offensive or biased, than to protect students by prohibiting offensive or biased speech.”

ACE wrote that managing tensions between campus inclusion and free expression was one of today’s most pressing challenges for leaders.

“These tensions have been muddied in recent years by political polarisation and high-profile incidents on select university campuses, making it convenient to put each of these two ideals – inclusion and expression – into their own boxes and talk about them as separate paradigms. The fact is, however, that they are far more mutually reinforcing than disconnected.”

Inclusion and free speech relationship

Presidents believed that students, faculty and staff at their institution were better at seeking out and listening to viewpoints different from their own, than those at other institutions. They saw staff and administrators as doing the best job in this regard, with 73% rated ‘good-very good’, against 53% for academics and 49% for students.

“There also appears to be a disconnect between perceptions of what may be happening in one’s backyard compared to what is happening on a broader scale.” Almost 80% of presidents said inclusion and free speech work well together on their campus – but only 13% believed this was the case nationally.

Asked how the relationship between inclusion and free speech might evolve, presidents seem more optimistic about this relationship on their own campus than nationally: 80% thought this relationship would either improve or remain the same on their campus. Nationally, though, 39% of presidents felt the relationship would worsen while 47% predicted that it would remain the same or improve.

Presidents, said ACT, “were concerned about violence and student safety when it comes to managing efforts between inclusion and free speech”: 52% were ‘somewhat concerned’ and 18% were ‘very concerned’.

Campus activity

“In terms of campus activity, although controversial speakers have been highly visible flashpoints – especially in the press – less than 10% of all presidents reported that students have held demonstrations or protests against such speakers on their campus.”

Rather, and interestingly, issues of diversity and inclusion appear to have driven student demonstrations (37%) while one in 10 protests was over free speech.

In defining what activities were acceptable or not for students when expressing views, presidents were unanimously against using violence to stop a speech, protest or rally and 85% said shouting down speakers or trying to prevent them from talking was never acceptable.

Presidents found distributing pamphlets and protests against speakers were the most acceptable forms of engagement. Almost all presidents believed that denying news media access to report on a protest or rally was always or sometimes acceptable.

Preparing for and managing conflict

In preparing for and managing conflict, just over half of campus leaders said they had the necessary tools. Most mentioned additional tools of value, including case studies offering strategies for balancing tensions between campus inclusion and free expression, legally vetted policies and responses to free speech incidents, and education for the campus community.

The survey found that presidents employ concerted strategies to manage tensions. “The most frequently identified strategies have to do with communication between the institution and its stakeholders, and reviewing or establishing institutional policies,” said ACE.

A high 88% of presidents use clear public statements that reinforce stated institutional values, 80% use open community forums that provide a space for dialogue on issues of speech and inclusion, and 76% monitor social media for potential causes for concern.

Almost two-thirds reported reviewing or establishing institutional policies related to time, place and manner restrictions. Other prominent strategies included professional development for faculty and staff; meeting with student groups; and reviewing or establishing institutional policies related to campus crises, speech codes or invited speakers.

“Less than half of presidents used social media to dispel myths or educate students on the history and purpose of the First Amendment – two areas that seem ripe for exploration,” said ACE.

Reflecting on how First Amendment freedoms have played out taught that “demonstrating inclusion and free expression as mutually reinforcing concepts requires collective responsibility. Higher education leaders in particular need to teach and model civil discourse and debate that includes the full range of individuals in our richly diverse democracy.”

Survey of surveys

In collaboration with the John S and James L Knight Foundation, ACE compared its study with a new Knight-Gallup 2017 survey of students on America’s First Amendment.

“Overall, there were more similarities than differences; but the differences don’t surprise,” write Espinosa, Crandall and Wilkinson. “It may be that campus leaders and their students are more aligned on First Amendment issues than we believe or the media often depicts.”

Students and presidents overwhelmingly agree that inclusion and free speech are important to a democracy – tensions can arise around what communities do when trying to achieve both.

“What they shouldn’t do – and we’ve heard this from both presidents and students – is pit inclusion and speech against each other,” said ACE.

When asked to choose between inclusion and free speech, “presidents lean more toward free speech than do students, but majorities in both groups have a strong preference for allowing students to be exposed to all types of speech even if they may find it offensive or biased”.

However, as Chancellor Dorothy Leland of the University of California at Merced acknowledged: “This is a challenging balance act. It is difficult for students – and others – to remain committed to free expression when that expression is hurtful or offensive.”

Understanding that inclusion and free speech are core to a democracy extends to all kinds of speech, but not in the same way for presidents and students. While 85% of presidents view shouting down speakers or trying to prevent them from talking as unacceptable, this action is more ambiguous for students.

“Challenges and opportunities abound as members of the higher education community participate in the discourse that defines a vibrant democratic society, particularly during such a polarised time,” said ACE. Higher education needs to acknowledge and respond to student issues around safety, security and inequality while advancing its commitment to free speech.

“As we create spaces for civic discourse, we also must remind ourselves that students are just beginning to learn how to thoughtfully engage in these spaces,” wrote ACE’s Espinosa, Crandall and Wilkinson. Also, many campus leaders are grappling with how to deal with conflict while enhancing inclusion.

“We’re all on a learning curve, and where better to learn than on a college campus.”