The Forum | Philanthropy

Four Ways Philanthropy can Protect Free Speech on Campus

April 29, 2021 by Rebecca Richards

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni has long advocated for a campus culture that promotes intellectual diversity, open inquiry, and free expression. The unfettered pursuit of truth is the lifeblood of higher education, yet today we face a deepening free speech crisis at colleges and universities.

Intelligent giving can preserve and foster a culture of free expression on campus. Through targeted giving, higher education donors have a critical role in turning the tide.

Know the landscape. Before you make a gift to a university, investigate the current climate on campus. Visiting the campus, talking to students and faculty, and looking at the bulletin boards for upcoming events will give you a sense of the culture. If you are unable to visit, you can find information online about the university’s free speech policies. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) online database rates the speech codes of over 400 major institutions. ACTA’s What Will They Learn? project also provides key information about colleges’ level of commitment to protecting free speech.

A well-designed survey of students can illuminate the state of free expression on campus. Last year, FIRE surveyed students at 55 universities to create the 2020 College Free Speech Rankings, available on its website. ACTA is partnering with FIRE and College Pulse to expand the survey to students at top liberal arts colleges. The 2021 report will be available on ACTA’s site later this summer.

Sponsor programs that teach civil discourse. There are a number of organizations that work to teach our nation’s students how to engage respectfully with one another on divisive topics in order to prepare them to be engaged and informed citizens. ACTA regularly partners with Braver Angels, a nonprofit that aims to bridge political divides, to hold parliamentary-style debates at schools across the nation. The Steamboat Institute, based in Colorado, hosts Campus Liberty Debates that focus on teaching America’s Founding principles. Consider sponsoring an event at your alma mater through a trusted organization with a track record of success.

Give to an academic center that promotes free speech. ACTA has created a list of outstanding academic programs on campuses across the nation, designated as “Oases of Excellence.” These centers are committed to ensuring free inquiry into a range of intellectual viewpoints. Their courses and programming help students develop critical thinking skills. Often, they bring speakers to campus that students may not otherwise have the opportunity to hear. By supporting Oases of Excellence, you signal the importance of their work to the university.

Tie your gift to the Chicago Principles. If you are planning a major gift, consider making your gift contingent on the institution’s adoption of the Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression or a similarly strong statement. Over 80 institutions have already adopted the Chicago Principles, signaling their dedication to upholding free expression. A public statement of support for free speech can have ripple effects on campus, building accountability. Time and effort may be required before the campus culture shifts and free expression is fully embraced again. However, a commitment on the part of the university leadership is an excellent first step.

A flourishing liberal democracy is only possible when citizens can engage in civil discourse with others who do not share their own views. The preservation of free speech on campus is not only a prerequisite for providing a rigorous education but is also essential for the health of society at large. By supporting free expression, donors can contribute to the renewal of America’s colleges and universities.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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