Maintaining Freedom of Expression in Higher Education Spaces

naspa avp steering committee

Erik Kneubuehl

December 4, 2017

Free speech is a right guaranteed to all Americans. It is protected and cherished, defended and challenged every day across the United States. Free speech can present itself in many ways, in vocal and nonvocal displays. Over the last decade on higher education campuses, free speech has presented as marches, protests, walk-outs, sit-ins, and kneel-downs.

Civil discourse is closely aligned with free speech, with a significant difference: Free speech is a constitutional hallmark; civil discourse is an opportunity to create and/or enhance understanding. Due to the legal requirements of one and the mere suggestion of the other, it would be easy to create separation between free speech and civil discourse. This would be a mistake. Free speech activities, with the absence of civil discourse, can easily transition to police actions often called civil unrest, disturbances, or disorder. Civil discourse is an opportunity, but it can also be part of the solution to ease hostilities, soften emotions, and provide perspective prior to and/or during free speech activities.

Students are often the center for free speech activities, and they can and should also be the focal point for civil discourse. Civil discourse, when done effectively, can enhance understanding or more clearly deliver the intended message. The latter is often lost during broad, large-scale, and many times, disruptive activities. It is only when conversation takes place that hostilities can reduce and listening and empathy can occur.

Historically, over the last decade, civil discourse movements across higher education have increased. A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities in 2012, represents the work of the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement. The report encouraged a “Call to Action” that stressed higher education’s responsibility, in collaboration with our communities, to ensure that students have the skills and knowledge they need to become informed, civically engaged citizens. That engagement includes civil discourse and the need for colleges and universities to support, and most importantly, educate students on how to safely participate and professionally lead change. The report showed more than two-thirds of over 2,400 student respondents reported that they felt better prepared to have difficult political and social conversations because of their engagement in college.

The U.S. Census reports that less than 20% of 18- to 29-year-olds turn out to vote in national elections. This means it’s imperative for higher education to start the conversations about civil discourse and engagement to empower students while on campus and beyond graduation. Further to that point, a 2015 study conducted by Wake Forest University, supported by the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, reported that engaged students continued as engaged young adults as far out as 10 years from their graduation. The study specifically cited civil discourse and deliberation as “high-impact” practices that serve to train and sustain civic engagement.

Dating back to 1921, John Dewey stated that the development of citizens occurred through “doing” rather than simply “knowing,” which has served as a guiding principle for theorists of participatory democracy. In 2006, British researchers Gary Biesta and Robert Lawry argued in the Cambridge Journal of Education that educational institutions need to increase their efforts to understand and ultimately impact how young adults “learn democratic citizenship.”

Teaching students, within collegiate settings, to deliberate and sometimes debate important societal issues assists them in their identity development as well as connects them to their civic responsibilities. Civil dialogues teach college students how to constructively disagree, but also encourage valuable skills development such as listening, counterpoint development, and compromise. Martha Nussbaum, of the University of Chicago, stated in her 2010 book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities that educational institutions are vital in the preparation of students as "complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person's sufferings and achievements."

These types of civility programs and conversations are occurring at many colleges and universities around the world. Recent research demonstrates a direct connection between civil discourse and student learning. In 2005, the Review of Higher Education published a study from Robert Rhoads, Victor Saenz, and Rozana Carducci looking at how building strong coalitions at the University of Michigan directly correlated with student learning. The study reported that change occurred at a great level when the community partnered rather than worked in silos. In the 2016 New Directions for Higher Education volume Radical Academia (2016), Adrianna Kezar and Dan Maxey discussed their research on characteristics of successful institutions that support learning and civil discourse. One of the key practices they found was that formal and informal mission, goals, and curriculum are blended with the campuses culture of social action and civil discourse. Studies such as these illustrate the connection between student learning and civil discourse.  

Franklin McCain, a member of the Greensboro Four who staged the sit-in protest in February 1960, spoke at East Carolina University in 2013 about how civil discourse can create positive change in society. His death in 2014 didn’t mean the conversation ended. The people delivering the messages may change, but the topics, and now most importantly these types of civil conversations, will continue, and higher education and student affairs must play an active role in ensuring, teaching, and preserving civil discourse.

Political scientist Harry Boyte wrote in a blog post for the HuffPost that it’s a vital for colleges to be "part of communities, not simply 'partners with' communities, overcoming the culture of detachment" that too often characterizes colleges and their locales. Continuing our development of a community that values civil discourse is not just part of our jobs in student affairs, it is at we do and believe in. 

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