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Campus Free Speech: Evolution of a Wicked Problem

Civic Engagement Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice
May 22, 2020 Jill Dunlap NASPA

Free speech has been a topic that has captured the time and attention of students, faculty, and student affairs administrators for years, and the ability to engage in deliberative dialogue across differences is a skill that will help all of higher education as it creates a new path forward. 

In the pre-COVID-19 era, NASPA in partnership with the Kettering Foundation developed a campus free speech guide for use by student affairs practitioners, faculty, and leadership in encouraging conversations across differences in the higher education community. NASPA is proud to announce the release of the guide, Free Speech and the Inclusive Campus: How Do We Foster the Campus Community We Want? which includes valuable suggestions for guiding groups through a deliberative dialogue forum on a controversial topic. 

The campus free speech guide was more than a year in the making and reflects significant interest and involvement from student affairs professionals in leveraging deliberative dialogue to promote student success. Throughout the deliberative process that resulted in the guide, NASPA staff, in collaboration with the core planning team identified free speech on campus as a wicked problem. A wicked problem is defined as one in which “the diagnosis or definition is unclear, the location or cause is uncertain, and any effective action to deal with it requires narrowing the gap between what is and what ought to be.” NASPA held a series of concern gatherings with student affairs professionals across the United States, which served as the basis for the development of the guide. NASPA staff and campus professionals interested in collaborating around how to make challenging conversations more approachable for all came together to create the guideavailable for free to anyone with an interest in free speech on campus and how to encourage civil discourse among those with divergent perspectives.   

Given how politicized the response to COVID has become, the ability to engage in deliberative dialogues on campus free speech, as well as a range of other issues, is a skill set that continues to be essential for student affairs professionals who are helping students navigate the new normal. In coordination with the release of the guide, NASPA is hosting a free session, Dialogue and Deliberation: Moderator Training for Dialogues across Difference, on Wednesday, May 27 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. ET. Participants will be trained using the guide as a model, to become moderators who are able to coordinate deliberative dialogue forums on their own campuses and community.

Those unable to attend the training, are still encouraged to leverage the guide autonomously. Additional materialsdesigned for self-directed use are available, including a moderator’s guide and forum placemat, along with participant and moderator evaluations for completion following each forum. Please reach out to Dr. Jill Dunlap or Diana Ali, if you have questions on the use of any of the materials available. 

The free speech guide is just a part of NASPA’s overall commitment to civic learning and democratic engagement. The annual Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Meeting, hosted in collaboration with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), brings together faculty, student affairs professionals, senior campus administrators, students, and community partners to ensure that students graduate from our public and private colleges and universities prepared to be the informed, engaged citizens that our communities and our democracy need. This year’s conference is being held virtually and will provide participants with opportunities to network and develop their civic-minded thinking and practices through engaging plenary sessions, and informative general-interest sessions including developing civic engagement during and after the COVID pandemic. 


COVID-19 has proven to be a significant challenge for higher education and will continue to be as institutions cautiously re-open and bring students, faculty, and staff back to campus. NASPA continues to be committed to providing spaces to encourage civic learning and democratic engagement throughout the pandemic and beyond.