ACTA in the News | Free Speech

College alumni are stepping up to defend free speech

THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER   |  September 29, 2023 by Dr. Bryan Paul

When thinking of college alumni, one generally imagines boosters donning their alma mater’s signature colors and cheering proudly for their team at homecoming games, or a multimillionaire being courted at campus events and donating substantial sums to fund an institution’s new building, sports complex, or scholarship program.

In fact, higher education institutions have tended to view alumni solely as cheerleaders and walking checkbooks who can be entertained and solicited for financial support while their ideas and concerns can be managed or ignored. By treating alumni as branded cash cows, colleges and universities are snubbing the most enduring stakeholder group in the higher education ecosystem.

Alumni consistently report that their college education was not just crucial to their professional lives but to their personal development. And alumni are no small constituency. As of 2021, about 38% of people ages 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree. Alumni, who retain their academic affiliation for a lifetime upon graduation, are also uniquely positioned to hold their alma maters accountable to their core missions. From skyrocketing costs to burgeoning free speech violations, it is clear the higher education system is in serious need of course correction.

That’s why a growing number of alumni are no longer content to write blank checks and cheer from the sidelines. They have become alarmed by the erosion of civil discourse and the abysmal state of free expression on campus and are organizing to revive those essential values in a number of important ways.

Alumni are working to bring accountability back to college campuses in several ways. First, alumni have realized that they can show their gratitude to and exert positive influence on their alma maters through targeted intentionalgiving. While it might seem logical simply to withhold donations from a university when it falls short of its core mission, the potential of a targeted major gift often opens the door to a conversation about the direction of the university and forces the institution to answer tough questions and even change behavior to be worthy of the gift. Donors can, and should, restrict gifts to specific purposes. That does not mean infringing on the very academic freedom they seek to protect: It means setting up the guardrails that protect values the institution ought to cherish.

The savvy donor is informed about the reality on campus, has a clear vision for what the gift should accomplish, and has the patience to take time to fund projects that align with the needs of the institution while reinforcing the vision of a vibrant and intellectually diverse education. Even nonmajor gifts to programs such as the Civil Discourse Project at Duke University indicate to the administration that alumni actively care about free speech. Big money can start a conversation, but donors at any level can make a significant difference by giving wisely.

Secondly, engaged alumni, such as those affiliated with the Alumni Free Speech Alliance , are collaborating to promote and defend free expression policies , host debates and events on campus, mentor students, and invite speakers who represent a variety of viewpoints and who otherwise might be ignored or deplatformed. Having benefited from education grounded in the free exchange of ideas, alumni are living, breathing testaments to the importance of free and open inquiry in higher education and democratic society. Their positive experiences on campus now motivate them to ensure that future generations of students receive a solid grounding in the same values and develop the intellectual fortitude to grapple with ideas that challenge even their most closely held beliefs.

“I think the future of the country depends on the educational system,” said Stuart Taylor, Jr., co-founder of AFSA and president of Princetonians for Free Speech , in a recent video highlighting the national alumni movement. “You would hope that [students] would have a sense of our national heritage and they would have learned some history, but it’s college where they should really learn how free speech works in practice, how it helps you figure out what you think, how it helps you communicate with your fellow students and your professors and the people you go to work for after college.”

Alumni such as Taylor (Princeton ’70, Harvard Law ’77) exemplify the type of citizenship that is at the heart of a liberal democracy.

Now fully awakened to the threats facing free expression on campuses, alumni have mobilized to help their alma maters be better and ready for the future. The esteem in which alumni hold higher education is why administrators would be wise not to take alumni volunteerism for granted and to listen to their concerns about academic freedom.

This piece appeared in The Washington Examiner on September 29, 2023.


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