While civil discourse and free speech are pillars of the campus experience across colleges and universities, several state higher education systems and organizations want to ensure their students understand what that truly means.
Politics is beginning to polarize college campuses into factions and the extent to which students and faculty are willing to go to resist hearing opposing viewpoints is increasing. A notable recent example of campus intolerance: Stanford students and an associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion heckled a federal judge into silence during his visit, which led to Stanford’s president and law dean issuing an apology. Two conservative federal appeals court judges have decided not to hire any more graduates from Stanford Law School since the incident.
It’s not just hecklers that are inhibiting civil discourse. Intolerance is growing more violent. Police made two arrests at the University of California, Davis last month after more than a hundred people protested the arrival of a scheduled keynote speaker, Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk. Similarly, Michigan Wayne State University suspended a professor for posting on social media that “it is far more admirable to kill a racist, homophobic or transphobic speaker than it is to shout them down.” And the Anti-Defamation League found that antisemitic acts of harassment, vandalism and assault on college campuses rose more than 40 percent in 2022, with 219 incidents, according to an audit.
In the wake of these fiascos, several state higher education systems and organizations are prioritizing healthy civil discourse on their school campuses.
Starting this spring, the Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI) and The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) are partnering with 12 colleges and universities to cultivate a culture of free expression and civil discourse through campus-wide dialogue initiatives. With the likes of Virginia Tech, William and Mary and James Madison University joining in, Virginia’s higher education institutions will use CDI’s evidence-based, randomized controlled trials program Perspectives to curate a space for truthful dialogue among students of different political backgrounds.
Each school promised a partnership with CDI and SCHEV for a minimum of 18 months.
“We’ve been given an intellectual toolkit with practical applications and a public square with which to learn together and restore trust in our institutions,” said William & Mary Associate Vice President for Student Engagement and Leadership Andrew D. Stelljes, according to a press release.
Last month, the University of Louisiana System held its first Free Expression Summit at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette campus. The summit attracted state representatives, professors and student government leaders to discuss self-censorship, student fragmentation, the first amendment and the effects of social media on campus communication. The event was so important that University of Louisiana System President Jim Henderson is looking to plan a second one and possibly more, according to The Advocate.
“We want to open a dialogue,” said State Rep. Charles Owen, who helped found the summit. “We want to talk about where we are as a people. We are looking for balance and trying to figure out where we want to be as a society.”
A trained cohort of students is hosting several civil dialogue events this Spring semester across several North Carolina college and university campuses to promote civil discourse and open exchange of ideas. North Carolina Campus Engagement (NCCE) trained the North Carolina Student Ambassadors to cultivate their facilitation skills.
“We live in a time of increasing polarization and division,” said Leslie Garvin, NCCE Executive Director, according to their website. “At the same time, major challenges are threatening to dismantle our communities and world. More than ever we need young leaders with the ability to build bridges and to deliberate together to develop solutions and take action.”
This is the first cohort of student ambassadors tasked with hosting a civil discourse event. Four schools were selected for the pilot program.