Trustees | Freedom of Expression

Colleges struggle over defending or curbing free speech

FOX NEWS   |  September 1, 2017

Both the University of Missouri and Evergreen State College have been rocked by left-wing demonstrations, some of which administrators in both schools allowed. Now both have had to deal with falling enrollment and a decline in funds – and there are fears the situation could spread to other schools.

The defining issue is whether parents and donors see administrators as capable of containing clashes and responding firmly when protests get out of control, experts say.

Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a nonprofit that advocates for a variety of higher education issues, told Fox News that how a college handles freedom of expression matters greatly to prospective students, their parents and donors.

“When they look to what college to pick, parents and students are thinking of the largest investment their family is likely to make beyond the purchase of a home,” Pfeffer Merrill said. “Across the political spectrum, one of the most essential assets is [the opportunity] to be exposed to a wide range of views.”

There is increasing concern, she said, “about a lack of openness to having a full conversation” amid a growing intolerance of views that are different or considered offensive.

“It’s senior leadership at the colleges that sets the tone,” she said.

At Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., last year left-wing students called for a day for whites to stay off campus. But a professor — well known as a progressive — publicly criticized the move. The response was threats and physical intimidation by students. Administrators decided to suspend classes for several days.

As at Missouri, the school administrators were assailed for allowing a group of overzealous students to call the shots.

Now Evergreen State has experienced a decline in enrollment that has resulted in a $2.1 million budget shortfall, forcing the liberal arts school to announce layoffs. The blow to the school’s enrollment and finances is seen as stemming, at least in part, from the showdown.

In 2015, the University of Missouri’s main campus, which is in Columbia, experienced escalating tensions over allegations of racism at the school – and protests became violent. Several administrators acceded to demonstrators’ demands that they resign.

School officials were widely criticized for not gaining control over the protests, which grew in size and tension, even resulting in some demonstrators lashing out at reporters who were trying to cover their message.

Since then, freshman enrollment has plunged by 35 percent, and donations to the athletic department have dropped 72 percent over the year before, according to published reports.

The University of Missouri had to temporarily close seven dormitories – renting them out for special events, such as homecoming games – and planned to cut 400 jobs.

“The general consensus was that [declining enrollment] was because of the aftermath of what happened in November 2015,” the New York Times quoted Mun Choi, the new system president, as saying. “There were students from both in the state and out of state that just did not apply, or those who did apply but decided not to attend.”

If left-wing groups continue making demands and administrators acquiesce to them, other schools may suffer the same fate as Missouri and Evergreen, according to one expert.

“I don’t think we have seen the full extent of the fallout at the University of Missouri,” Sterling Beard, editor of The Leadership Institute’s Campus Reform, told Fox News. “Violence is coming from Antifa groups on campus. Now they control administrators and shut out competing ideas they disagree with or don’t like.”

Beard said Missouri’s protests spread to other colleges, but they did not spiral out of control.

“The lesson is that administrators have to treat their students like the adults that they are,” he said. “Nowadays they treat students with kid gloves.”

When students cross the line from expressing a view or demonstrating for a cause to disrupting education or making people feel unsafe on campus, it’s time for administrators to lay down boundaries, Beard said.

“They must not be afraid to expel students and lay down the law.”

One school that has resisted the kinds of demands Missouri and Evergreen gave in to is the University of Chicago.

In the summer of 2016 incoming freshmen at the University of Chicago received a welcome letter that made the institution’s commitment to the free and open expression of ideas clear:

“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”


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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