A Campus Culture of Free Expression Brings Many Rewards
Amidst an unrelenting cycle of campus controversies, a generous benefactor has prepared the ground for free speech to flourish at one of the nation’s great universities. Baltimore’s own Johns Hopkins University is poised to show how universities can create a positive campus climate—and earn recognition in the process.
The Charm City received excellent news in June when the Stavros Niarchos Foundation announced a $150 million gift to Johns Hopkins University—the third-largest in university history. The donation will fund the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute, a center named for the ancient Athenian marketplace and public forum, with the mission of supporting vibrant, open discourse.
It comes not a moment too soon. Widespread campus unrest—at Middlebury, Evergreen State and UC–Berkeley, to name only a few institutions—reveals how the opportunity for free inquiry and free expression has cratered on college campuses. And ultimately, this is but a symptom of a much larger cultural problem concerning free speech. A 2016 Gallup survey found that the First Amendment has many detractors in higher education: About half of college students believe that it is legitimate to deny access to journalists if those attending a protest believe the press will be unfair to them in its reporting.
This is an existential crisis for higher education. Free expression represents the core of higher education’s mission as well as the spirit of civic engagement itself. Unfettered discussion and debate facilitate meaningful opportunities for critical thought, learning and growth. This dynamic encourages good ideas to rise and shoddy ones to be discredited. Without it, any community risks becoming an echo chamber—precisely why the cultivation of civic engagement and discourse must begin on college campuses.
Students’ ability to listen to and understand opposing views might also help overcome America’s growing partisan divisions. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that partisan animosity has increased substantially, with 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans viewing the other party as “threaten[ing] the nation’s well-being” and each harboring “highly negative” views of the other. It is a reasonable inference to see the roots of the toxic political impasses in a toxic campus culture where too many students seek to repress the views of those with whom they disagree.
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation’s gift will fund the interdisciplinary study of “dynamics of societal, cultural, and political polarization” to research civic literacy and engagement, diagnose weaknesses in public discourse and identify strategies to enhance public debate and civility.
Done right, the new institute at Hopkins is an example of how institutions can further free and open discourse to the center of academic priorities.
This recent gift enables Hopkins to build upon the university’s 2015 decision to adopt a statement in support of academic freedom, modeled after the University of Chicago’s landmark Chicago Principles. Although Johns Hopkins has made great strides in recent years to foster a culture friendly to free inquiry, there is more to do. By abolishing any leftover restrictions on free speech, Hopkins can become a national leader in defending freedom of expression—the quintessential value that will truly foster open learning, debate, and intellectual engagement.
After the upheaval of the past academic year, intellectual engagement and viewpoint diversity represent an overdue response to rising polarization and illiberalism. Johns Hopkins, America’s first great research university, has shown that supporting free expression can even attract philanthropic investment.
Still, the defense of free speech and debate, ultimately, must be its own reward. Indeed, throughout history, people of conscience have lost their lives and livelihoods in its pursuit. The path to a culture of free inquiry and free expression has been a long and contested one, and what’s happening on campus today is a continuation of that struggle. With that history in mind, leaders of America’s colleges and universities must reclaim their role in securing higher education’s inheritance of free expression.
Michael Poliakoff, Ph.D., is the President of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.