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With A Little Summer Work, College Administrators Can Set the Stage for Civil Disagreement in the Fall

Colleges and universities nationwide struggled to respond to student protests this past academic year. And this fall may prove even more challenging with the 2024 election season and the first anniversary of the October 7th attacks in the Middle East. The good news is there are steps that schools can take over the summer that are not just compatible with freedoms of speech, thought, and association — but are essential for the fulfillment of the mission of higher education.

First, schools need to craft and communicate clear, reasonable, and simple rules.

A quick online search of regulations regarding free expression and demonstrations at public and private colleges across the nation shows a hodgepodge of policies. At public universities, there are often additional links to technical state regulations which add to the confusion. Our advice to college leaders: make sure all students at your institution receive easy-to-read and unambiguous summaries of all university policies. And be sure to explain how the rules work to ensure the safety of all while promoting free speech.

Second, those rules need to be content-neutral and enforced promptly and even-handedly no matter what the protestors are for or against. That may sound simple, but apparently it was not the case at many universities this spring. According to Greg Lukianoff of FIRE, uneven enforcement of free speech policies during the protests added to the turmoil nationwide. Allowing selected groups to break the rules sends the bad message that not every member of the community is valued equally. That can only lead to student frustration, alumni outrage, donor disengagement, and even future Congressional hearings.

Third, students need to be aware of and accept the rules before they arrive on campus. At some schools, this is accomplished by requiring students to go online and participate in “training modules” on topics such as preventing sexual misconduct or substance abuse. Often free speech policies are included in the line-up of modules that students are scrolling through and acknowledging by clicking. Does anyone really think college students are actually reading — and remembering — what’s in all of those modules?

The best place to do this would be at orientation for incoming students. The Bipartisan Policy Center has a list of best practices for incorporating free expression into first-year orientations across the nation: from public addresses by college presidents and easily-disseminated videos and written materials to live discussions and debates.

Fourth, schools should provide students with opportunities to engage in dialogue and debate. DePauw and Austin Community College go beyond orientation to host Courageous Conversations and The Great Questions Project, respectively. Here at the University of Virginia, we’ll be holding our first-ever Braver Angels Debate this fall, which will feature a non-competitive open student debate on a current topic -- with free lunch for students, of course!

In founding UVA, Thomas Jefferson was committed to an educated citizenry. In Jefferson’s view, one mission of higher education was to create thoughtful, principled leaders. "The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate,” wrote Jefferson in 1824. “They are the result of habit and long training.” Jefferson was heavily influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment: to reach enlightenment, people have to be exposed to new ideas, ideas that they disagree with, even "unsafe" ideas. Jefferson knew better than most that debating develops the critical thinking skills required to enact positive change and founded UVA on that very idea.

How many colleges today live up to this ideal? How many instead reward "groupthink," protect students from ideas that they don't like, and block the development of civil debating, critical thinking skills, and the viewpoint diversity required to reach enlightenment?

This brings us to one last idea heading into the fall semester. If students want to protest on campus, colleges could provide a forum for public debate of the contested issues. That would give the students the chance to explain what they are for and against, and what they think must change to build a fairer and juster world. This would elevate protest into constructive discussion and debate — one that could influence, inform, and perhaps drive enlightenment.

Enlightened people seek to enlighten others and learn from them— not to bully them or shout them down. Let’s make the heart of a "protest" on a college campus a new engagement in debate that enables students to understand how to influence rather than intimidate. Let’s promote protests that can change minds through the exchange of ideas.

The fall is coming and universities have to take steps now to protect their reputations, the sanctity of education, and the safety of their communities. We have an opportunity to not only ward off an escalation in unsafe behavior but to actually promote more vigorous debate, critical thinking, and enlightenment in the next generation of Americans.

— Julia Mahoney, John S. Battle Professor of Law, University of Virginia School of Law; and Mary Kate Cary, Adjunct Professor, Department of Politics, and Director, Think Again at the University of Virginia


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