On March 21, President Donald J. Trump signed an executive order that intends to protect free speech on American college campuses. The order will restrict federal research funding to those institutions that protect freedom of expression. Public institutions will be required to uphold the First Amendment in their policies, while private schools will be held to their existing institutional statements to ensure free speech.
The details of implementation are as yet unspecified, and they are essential. Judiciously implemented, this executive order could be a catalyst to energize colleges and universities in their efforts to fulfill the ideals of academic freedom and intellectual diversity. Freedom of expression must never become a partisan issue, for it is the very lifeblood of teaching, learning, and research.
Since 1995, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) has worked with trustees, donors, faculty members, students, and policymakers—regardless of ideological, political, racial, or religious identity—to safeguard academic freedom and intellectual diversity. We believe that the fruits of academic freedom are shared by all. Just as scientists embrace trial and error to test hypotheses, higher education must embrace the wide marketplace of ideas in order to determine the ultimate truth.
Federal involvement in this pivotal issue cannot by itself win the fight for freedom of expression on college campuses. Every academic community must protect and foster the unfettered pursuit of truth. This is why ACTA has worked tirelessly (and successfully) to convince dozens of prominent institutions to adopt the Chicago Principles of Freedom of Expression. It is also why, just this past week, we helped the South Dakota State Legislature craft and pass a bill protecting free speech and intellectual diversity at all of the state’s public institutions of higher education—making South Dakota the first state to embrace this comprehensive agenda.
In addition to promoting free speech, the executive order also calls for improved transparency and access to consumer information to address the crisis of student debt. ACTA vigorously advocates for transparent public access to information on college spending to ensure that students and their families can make informed choices.
Since America’s founding, countless private and public citizens have dedicated their lives to upholding the promise of a free society. Aided by this federal commitment, the momentum is building to unite students, faculty, academic leaders, trustees, and all stakeholders in making our places of higher learning affordable and, without exception, sanctuaries for the free exchange of ideas.