For those who missed my previous article, let me catch you up on where we left off. Free speech on college campuses is alive, but certainly not well. In 2023, students still want to engage one another intellectually, but universities and college students alike no longer encourage genuine, open, and honest dialogue. Thankfully, there is reason for hope in the form of enshrined university commitments to free speech and civil discourse programs. However, these initiatives have not meaningfully impacted campus life because they lack the administrative backing and university-wide appeal necessary to foster truly open discourse.
In short, universities have to get better at protecting free speech because they are the only ones who possess the power to markedly improve the campus culture of open debate. So, how do universities accomplish this monumental task?
Three critical areas of college life need rework before any university can genuinely claim they are committed to free speech: admissions, faculty, and the administrative bureaucracy. Each sector significantly affects a university’s attitudes toward free speech by controlling who can attend the school, what is taught, and where it spends its money.
First up is admissions. A fair admissions process is vital to any university’s civil discourse plans because it will ensure an intellectually diverse student body. Ever since the Supreme Court’s June 29 decision to overturn race-based affirmative action, Americans have begun to revisit the entire college admissions process, including how universities factor ideological preferences into their choices. Shockingly, there is essentially zero data on how colleges choose to weigh a student’s political leanings, meaning that colleges could very well be discriminating against these groups in a fashion similar to how Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill penalized Asian applicants.
Though admissions departments have not released information indicating they discriminate against these groups, one only has to look at the makeup of American universities to realize that conservatives are incredibly underrepresented. In a 2023 survey, FIRE found that only 19% of college students identify as conservative, a marked decrease from the 33% of “Zoomers” nationwide who identify as conservative. A politically homogenous environment certainly could create a hostile atmosphere for aspiring students with dissident political views. If admissions put anywhere approaching the emphasis on ideological diversity as they do on other forms of diversity, balance might begin to return.
Regarding faculty, the solution is far more straightforward from an administrative perspective: hire a better balance of faculty. Looking at some of the most well-respected schools in the state, like NCSU and UNC Chapel Hill, one quickly realizes how desperately they need faculty dedicated to free speech and civil discourse.
This year, UNC Chapel Hill established a first-of-its-kind School of Civic Life and Leadership (SCiLL) that hopes to foster virtue through civil dialogue — a positive step. Other state-funded universities do not appear to have any faculty devoted to civil discourse or free speech whatsoever, leaving students without a valuable tool in their educational repertoire. How can we remedy this discrepancy? The answer is simple: hire more faculty to teach civil discourse classes and require every student, regardless of major, to take one of these courses.
While there is no “civil discourse degree,” there are certainly life experiences, personality traits, and educational backgrounds that indicate whether a professor could effectively facilitate challenging discussions. Likewise, while a civil discourse class may not immediately offer students professional or career-specific benefits, it would teach them a far more fundamental and relationally necessary life skill: how to uphold their beliefs with grace. When students fail to learn this vital lesson, we create a hateful society where speech becomes violence, and even one of the hallowed pillars of American discourse, the presidential debate stage, becomes a minefield for ad hominem attacks.
My third and final recommendation for improving campus free speech involves restructuring NC universities’ current Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programs. Though varied and individualized to each university, these programs generally aim to celebrate “all members of the university community, to broaden our collective understanding, and foster a sense of belonging.” As of August 2022, the state has spent north of $11 million on these DEI programs across all 16 UNC System schools, marking a considerable commitment by our leaders to this mission.
Without delving into the merit of arguments for equity, the precise issue with these programs is that they are money pits at worst and shallow platforms for virtue signaling at best. These DEI initiatives cannot bring about the kind of change they hope to inspire because they force a kind of faux, borderline-racist diversity upon students instead of celebrating what truly matters: individuality. Thus, I propose that each of these 16 schools convert their DEI programs into something akin to a free speech advocacy office that ensures students are not penalized for voicing diverse and unorthodox opinions. After all, is there any form of diversity that better conveys the breadth of the human experience than intellectual diversity? Suppose universities are genuinely committed to creating a welcoming culture. Must they not champion our most vulnerable voices by creating a diverse, civil, and inclusive environment for all good-faith opinions?
Though these programs would be great if implemented correctly, there is a possibility that colleges would create a powerless civil discourse program simply to appease free speech advocates, just as they did in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests with their DEI offices. Thus, an effective free speech regime requires substantial administrative and curricular influence to ensure that schools uphold their commitments to intellectual diversity and individuality.
Despite my efforts to outline the necessary steps universities must take, there is no silver bullet for improving the culture of campus free speech. As such, the solutions to this incredibly complex problem are incremental and therefore require tireless public effort. While I do not expect universities or politicians to heed my advice, I do trust that ordinary people like you and me will realize achieving open debate on college campuses is possible — if we can find a way to convince universities of its political and economic necessity.