Freedom of speech and freedom of thought are at the heart of American liberty. The protection of these values is perhaps most important at America’s universities, where the best and brightest are supposed to come together to discuss the new and controversial ideas which may one day shape our society.
Universities used to take this role seriously. They implemented protections for students’ rights to protest, controversial speakers were welcomed on campus and tenure systems were introduced to ensure faculty expressing radical or controversial ideas were not subject to political retribution. Institutions recognized that freedom of speech was a foundational component of the university experience.
But in the last 20 years, those values have been forgotten, as campuses that were once open to free thought have embraced the use of mandatory Diversity, Equity and Inclusion statements. Under this regime, both students and faculty are required to sign “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” statements in the hiring, promotion and admissions process.
There’s nothing wrong with universities, professors and students exploring new ideas and having nuanced conversations about DEI. But for many, these are highly ambiguous terms, and unpacking them is an important part of ongoing cultural debates. Unfortunately, many institutions are making adherence to these extremely politicized DEI standards a prerequisite for success. As the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression notes, DEI statements often require faculty to profess a specific belief pertaining to race, gender or other identifying characteristics, regardless of whether these topics are within their academic field of focus.
Faculty who question the effectiveness or tactics of affinity groups like Black Lives Matter might be penalized for failing to embrace “anti-racist” or decolonization principles. In one such case Dr. Tabia Lee, a Black professor at DeAnza Community College’s Office of Equity, Social Justice and Multicultural Education was fired for advocating for academic freedom on DEI issues.
Students are subject to similar pressures, with a commitment to DEI principles often serving as a prerequisite for admission. Applicants to North Carolina State University were asked to explain how their admission would contribute to “a more diverse and inclusive learning environment.” Applicants to the University of Minnesota Medical School were asked to provide their reflections on and experiences with systemic racism. At some institutions, candidates who offered a critique of DEI practices, or expressed a colorblind approach to these matters, were rejected. Among students who do get through, a climate of fear is pervasive. Polling data suggests 52% of college students are afraid to share their views on campus, worried they’ll face retribution from professors or fellow students.
This model isn’t just unsustainable, it’s adverse to long-term academic success and at odds with the traditional university model. For our universities to continue to foster success, students must be free to speak truth to power, and professors must be free to advance robust discussions of the controversial ideas at the heart of public discourse.
That doesn’t mean banning diversity, equity and inclusion curricula outright. But it does mean providing students and faculty with the academic freedom necessary to explore these topics, as well as many other controversial issues, in the pursuit of truth that once was the purpose of the university experience.
Some states have taken affirmative steps to ensure this freedom. The University of North Carolina, recognizing the demand for viewpoint diversity free exchange on campus, banned DEI litmus tests for admission and reasserted the commitment to “the academic ideal of the campus as a haven for free inquiry and debate.” Common sense reforms like this shouldn’t just be limited to red states. Polling suggests there is broad bipartisan support for this position.
These policies are a good start, and there are other simple reforms that could go a long way to restoring freedom of thought on campus. Beyond efforts to limit or ban the use of litmus tests, schools must prioritize academic diversity to ensure learning revolves around the discussion of a variety of ideas and not the memorization of highly politicized talking points. Schools like the University of Chicago have taken the lead here, committing to “free, robust and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the university’s community.”
Transparency is also important. Government officials should consider requiring colleges to disclose DEI curricula so students, parents and faculty can make informed choices about where to pursue educational and employment opportunities. It would also help taxpayers understand what they’re funding, and consider whether it’s in the state’s interest to continue to do so.
Academic freedom is essential to a free society. The civil discourse that has been at the heart of our democracy requires a populace capable of engaging a variety of viewpoints, and academic freedom is at the heart of discovery. It’s long past time to commit to getting it right.