Policymakers | Freedom of Expression

Are Austin’s Campuses Protecting Free Speech?

FORBES   |  June 21, 2023 by Michael B. Poliakoff

The answer spans “significant progress” to “beyond a doubt.”

We are seeing meaningful breakthroughs in the Texas capital, and the University of Austin (UATX) is clearly destined to be a new national model. Meanwhile, survey data released today show that making even more progress is an urgent priority for American higher education.

Several years ago, the University of Chicago responded to growing campus illiberalism and challenged the nation: “Debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. . . . Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.” That is not really very radical: In fact, for a public university not to do this gets perilously close to violating the First Amendment. But this excerpt from the 2014 statement that the University of Chicago issued under the leadership of its late president, Robert Zimmer, says all that needs to be said. To date, 101 institutions around the nation have adopted the Chicago Statement on Freedom of Expression. Good, but it leaves thousands more to go.

It was a long path, nearly four years, for the University of Texas (UT)–Austin to adopt such a statement. In January 2019, shortly after the chancellor of the UT System James B. Milliken arrived, he stated at a Texas Tribune event that he was “considering” the adoption of a policy like the Chicago Principles. The UT–Austin Student Government observed that campus speech codes “clearly and substantially restrict[ed] freedom of speech.” The assembly called upon UT–Austin President Jay Hartzell to take the obvious step. The breakthrough was in November of 2022, when the regents unanimously adopted a strong new policy closely patterned on the University of Chicago model, not just for the Austin flagship but for all 13 UT institutions. UT Regent Stuart Stedman, in correspondence with me, voiced his enthusiasm, quoting the words of Hanna Holborn Gray from the Chicago Statement: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”

UT Chancellor Milliken noted, in an email to me, that that means “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.”

UATX, born in 2021, and now seeking accreditation, holds promise to be a North Star to guide the Lone Star State and beyond. Its website makes the founding principles of UATX abundantly clear: “Universities devoted to the unfettered pursuit of truth are the cornerstone of a free and flourishing democratic society. For universities to serve their purpose, they must be fully committed to freedom of inquiry, freedom of conscience, and civil discourse.” Article VI of its draft constitution, shown to me by UATX founding president Pano Kanelos, goes yet further and promises institutional neutrality: “UATX will not . . . modify its corporate activities to foster political or social change or take collective action, except insofar as these activities are directly in the service of its academic mission.” This evocation of the 1968 University of Chicago Kalven Committee Report is almost unique in American higher education, where the university increasingly vies for political pundit status, which, in the words of the Kalven Report, “endanger[s] the conditions for its existence and effectiveness” and “inhibit[s] that full freedom of dissent on which it thrives.

Data from a College Pulse survey of over 1,000 University of Texas–Austin students (margin of error 3%), sponsored by my organization, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, shows that the UT regents are right to be proactive. The key findings are troubling. Only one-fifth of UT–Austin students agree that shouting down a campus speaker is never acceptable, while 44% answer that it is “always” (7%) or “sometimes” (37%) acceptable. Yet more alarming: Eighteen percent hold that using violence to stop a campus speech is “always” (4%) or “sometimes” (14%) acceptable, and another 24% answer that it is “rarely” acceptable.

The political divide in our nation is widening, and this recent UT–Austin survey suggests one of the catalysts is happening right on campus, where friendship and positive interaction should build understanding. A 2022 Pew survey shows a staggering increase in negative character traits that Americans attribute to members of the political party different from their own. Fifty-one percent of Republicans and 52% of Democrats say that their political opponents are more “unintelligent” than they are. Sixty-nine percent of Republicans and 83% of Democrats say their opponents are more “close-minded,” and 72% of Republicans and 62% of Democrats say they are more “immoral.” The UT–Austin survey shows that seven out of ten students who self-identify as liberal report having few friends or none at all who have different political beliefs. (One-fifth of self-reported conservatives say the same.) Conservative students were twice as likely to say that they lost friends because of their political beliefs.

UATX’s first offering to undergraduates, a summer program titled “Forbidden Courses,” whose stated goal is “to explore the great questions of our times,” drew 326 applications for 80 places in 2021. There is a hunger among America’s young people for debate and dialog. The nascent UATX holds a “First Principles” conference each year to take a hard look at itself to see if it is keeping an uncompromising ethic of embracing heterodoxy. President Kanelos expressed to me his hope that the model can work everywhere, in cities red and blue, and that it will be a laboratory for every other institution.

In a recent email exchange with me, Regent Stedman observed that the adoption of a strong statement supporting freedom of expression honors a long commitment, evident in the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts and Ideas and, most recently, in the School of Civic Leadership that the UT System regents recently established at UT–Austin, which will focus on “the values and principles of a free society.”

The new survey data show that there is distance to travel, but it is highly encouraging that the regents are so firmly on the path of boldly embracing best practices for building campuses that are, to borrow the words of the new UATX, “dedicated to the fearless pursuit of truth” and, in the words of the UT System, to promoting “fearless freedom of debate and deliberation.”

That will be a gift to the nation.

This article originally appeared on Dr. Poliakoffs Forbes column on June 21, 2023.


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