Everyone Loves Free Speech… In Theory

Governor Glenn Youngkin at the higher-ed summit at the University of Virginia. Photo credit: The Daily Progress

by James A. Bacon

Governor Glenn Youngkin outlined yesterday his vision for colleges and universities in Virginia as bastions of free speech and intellectual diversity where people come together to devise solutions to society’s most pressing problems.

“How do we ask serious questions and foster informed debate so we can get to answers?” he asked in a pragmatic defense of free speech in a keynote speech of a statewide higher-ed conclave held at the University of Virginia. The answer was implicit in the title of the event: the Higher Education Summit on Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity.

The summit was attended by representatives, including many presidents, of every public university in Virginia and more than half of the state’s private higher-ed institutions. The end goal of the event, said Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera in introductory remarks, was for every institution to create an “action plan” to advance the goals of free speech and intellectual diversity.

Youngkin began laying the groundwork a year ago when he addressed the Council of Presidents and pushed them toward the same goals. The Council, comprised of Virginia college and university presidents, adopted a statement endorsing free speech and intellectual diversity in the abstract. But as discussions at Wednesday’s summit made clear, there is considerable gray area in applying free speech principles in the real world. The next step is to move beyond the expression of abstract principles to putting those principles into action.

The keynote speech was vintage Youngkin — an upbeat expression of positive, feel-good aspirations that eschewed divisive culture-wars rhetoric. But the underlying supposition of his speech is that campus cultures have created an environment that is often antithetical to free speech. Citing few specifics from Virginia institutions, the governor cited national surveys in which “shocking” percentages of students not only engage in self-censorship but endorse the shouting down of speakers whose views they find offensive.

Youngkin also made a connection between free speech and viewpoint diversity. Universities must actively promote diverse perspectives, he said. Free speech doesn’t mean much if everyone agrees with one another to begin with.

The university presidents, nonprofit executives, and faculty members participating in the summit echoed the same themes. Free speech is good. Suppression of free speech is bad. Civil dialogue is good. Shutting out other peoples’ views is bad.

“Free and open inquiry is a cornerstone of how knowledge is produced,” said UVa President Jim Ryan. Yet “free speech can be loud and ugly and offensive.” A commitment to free speech, he said, must allow room for the messy and ugly. The answer to ugly speech, he said, is more speech — ideally civil speech coupled with empathetic listening.

Speaking in a panel discussion, Jonathan R. Alger, president of James Madison University, said “free speech is part of the DNA of our institution.” JMU strives to produce “engaged citizens.” Students are expected to speak up and challenge “traditional orthodoxy.” Debates and disagreements build “civic muscles.”

At the Virginia Military Institute, said Superintendent Cedric T. Wins, cadets have an “obligation” to speak out about things, “certainly when it comes to social issues.” He urged members of the VMI community to “be responsible in your speech. Speak truth to power.”

Kevin Hallock, president of the University of Richmond, said he was attracted to UR in part by the university’s commitment to free speech. It is important, he said, for people to “speak across differences.” Everyone agrees with the principle of free speech “until it gets complicated.”

There was widespread agreement that social media forces society into making difficult choices. As Alger noted, “people lash out behind a keyboard. It’s a lot harder to attack someone face to face.” Forces emanating from outside the academy are responsible for much of the incivility that is seen on campus, he said.

UR’s Hallock raised another intractable issue. “Expressing ideas freely doesn’t guarantee approval or immunity from consequences,” he said. That argument is frequently directed against rare dissenting voices on campus, especially on contentious issues swirling around identity politics. Translation: If you express outrageous views, don’t be surprised if society responds by being outraged.

That logic, in turn, can be problematic, especially in environments marked by the cultivation of perpetual outrage. In a different panel discussion, Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, decried how many campuses “internalize a culture of offense rather than the free exchange of ideas.”

A sub-theme of the summit was to share best practices. Mary Kate Cary, an adjunct professor at UVa, described the Think Again program devoted to the exchange of ideas in the context of viewpoint diversity, critical thinking, and intellectual humility. Gerard Alexander discussed the activities of UVa’s Blue Ridge Center, which brings in outside speakers and organizes reading groups to “bring to UVa intellectual content that kids would not get otherwise.” Other panelists — with the Institute for Citizens & Scholars, the Constructive Dialogue Institute, and the Heterodox Academy — described efforts to promote dialogue and debate at other institutions.

While there was unanimous support for free speech, higher-ed leaders were less voluble on the need for intellectual diversity. Higher-ed institutions are becoming leftist intellectual monocultures as older, more philosophically diverse faculty members retire and are replaced by a generation steeped in orthodoxy about race and identity — even as identitarian politics is infiltrating and redefining every field of endeavor from the humanities to the hard sciences. This silent purge is taking place with the acquiescence of university presidents who profess a dedication to free speech.

It remains to be seen whether Virginia universities will take that critical step from words to actions. The first of two team-planning sessions took place during lunch. By 3:00 p.m. the crowd was thinning out, however, and Guidera closed out the session with a plea for institutions to finish the task on their own in time for the next meeting of the Council of Presidents.

Correction: This post inaccurately suggested that the team planning sessions did not take place at all during the summit. In fact, the first of two sessions did take place. “We saw many workbooks completely filled out!” Guidera says. “Folks told us they appreciated the time to meet together as teams, and one team continued to meet until after 4:30.”

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7 months ago

Talk is cheap.

All the VA Presidents, including Jim Ryan, talk a good game. The Jefferson Council has uncovered far too many instances where students and faculty espousing “traditional” positions are shut down or mercilessly denigrated on social media. In those cases where individuals, usually students, ask the Dean or even President Ryan directly for assistance they have been ignored.

Grandly worded statements like President Ryan’s “Committee on Free Expression and Free Inquiry” mean absolutely nothing unless the precepts they define are enforced.

walter smith
walter smith
7 months ago

Not real support at UVA.
“Generous listener” means what non-Woke people are supposed to do when listening to “Great and Good” recycled Marxism.
When someone proposing traditional Western Civ notions of sanity is to speak (eg Abigail Shrier), you are expected to try to block access, scream, threaten, etc, with a deafening silence to follow.