Strengthening Free Speech at UVa: Part II

Mary Kate Cary. Photo credit: The Miller Center

Here follows the second part of a speech delivered by Professor Mary Kate Cary to the Colonnade Club Oct. 12. Part I recounted the state of free speech at the University of Virginia. In Part II she describes what can be done to improve it. The transcript, originally published at Think Again, is republished with permission. — JAB

We’re seeing some progress lately, and we need to keep the momentum going. While there are other organizations on Grounds I cannot speak for, here are some of the organizations and initiatives I know of:

UVA’s Committee on Free Expression and Free Inquiry, on which I was honored to serve, produced the statement that was unanimously endorsed by Board of Visitors after classes let out in summer of 2021. As a result, many students don’t know about it. That’s why I hand it out with my syllabus every semester. I expect my students to live up to what it says, and we discuss it the first day of class. Whether you are a member of faculty or staff, a student, a parent, a friend, or a community member, you can endorse the statement at You can even do it anonymously.

About a year ago, a group of faculty and I founded Think Again. We stand by Think Again’s four pillars: free expression, viewpoint diversity, critical thinking, and intellectual humility. We sponsor a variety of events and workshops to promote these values, and we have the best articles, podcasts, and webinars about them for students to learn more on our website.

For example, Think Again recently hosted our third annual Student Oratory Contest in which finalists competed for a $500 prize by writing and delivering five-minute speeches answering the question, “What is the greatest strength of our American democracy?” The judges were comprised of former White House speechwriters from both sides of the aisle. The event is held in the Dome Room of the Rotunda before a live audience.

On October 19, we also hosted Bo Seo, the two-time world debate champion and the author of Good Arguments: How Debate Teaches Us to Listen and Be Heard. Bo ran a student workshop on “How to Disagree Better” to a full house in the Great Hall at the Batten School.

Last semester, a group of first-years asked me if they could form a student component to Think Again, called Middle Grounds. Over 50 students now meet weekly in our offices on the Corner to talk politics from all viewpoints, and they’ve launched a new podcast, “Bipodisan.” I believe they may draw national attention as they only student-run podcast on politics — with viewpoint diversity — at any college in the nation. They embody Bipodisan’s slogan: “Red and Blue Without the Black and Blue.”

Our offices on the Corner are also the home of The Blue Ridge Center, which was founded by Professor Gerard Alexander. Blue Ridge’s mission is for all students to thrive at UVA through intellectual diversity, and they run reading groups on topics and thinkers not being taught in the classroom — such as C.S. Lewis, Thomas Sowell, and Jonathan Haidt. More at TheBlueRidgeCenter.Org.

Last year, several of us founded the UVA chapter of the Heterodox Academy (also known as HxA.) Members stand for open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement in higher education. We are one of 36 university chapters nationwide, and the only one in Virginia. Our membership is increasing quickly, and we’re now the fourth largest chapter in the nation. Heterodox’s slogan is “Great minds don’t all think alike,” and members try to abide by “The Heterodox Way.” This includes making our case with evidence, being intellectually charitable and humble, and being constructive when we disagree with others. We encourage all faculty and staff to join our UVA chapter.

About three years ago, students founded The Jefferson Independent, an independent newspaper that is an alternative to The Cavalier Daily dedicated to viewpoint diversity on Grounds. The paper features news, sports, opinion. You can subscribe to weekly highlights of their coverage on their website.

The Governor’s Free Speech Summit will held here at UVA on Wednesday, November 29 in conjunction with the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia (SCHEV). The presidents of all universities and community colleges in Virginia will be attending. A number of national organizations dedicated to free speech in higher education will be attending, and the Governor will be giving the keynote address. The goal is for each of the educational institutions to leave with a free speech action plan in hand.

But we need to do better if we are to accomplish what I believe is our University’s ultimate mission – to pursue truth with courage. Here are a few ideas:

There’s a growing national movement to encourage institutional neutrality in higher education. Specifically, UVA should form a faculty committee to look into whether we should join other universities in endorsing the Kalven Committee Report, which was written at the University of Chicago during the Vietnam War. The Kalven Report barred the university as an institution from making statements on current political issues, in order to instead promote the free speech of individual faculty and students.

I am not advocating for silencing any one individual’s political views, but when political views are expressed as an institution, it affects the willingness of students and faculty to disagree or lay out alternatives. Especially when one is the head of a school or department that gives grades to students.

UVA could also publish an annual report on free speech on Grounds, using our own polling done by our Data Science School. The report could be the responsibility of a free speech oversight committee comprised of faculty members who believe in viewpoint diversity. The committee that wrote the University’s Free Speech statement mentioned above was disbanded two years ago, and a permanent committee would be a welcome addition on Grounds.

Incoming students and faculty should receive free speech orientation. It used to be part of incoming orientation for first years, and it no longer is. It needs to come back. There are plenty of national organizations that supply the resources for free speech orientation for students and faculty at colleges nationwide — we don’t need to reinvent the wheel in order to get this in place by fall of 2024.

Multiple polls show the lack of ideological balance among university faculty nationwide — and here in Charlottesville, all of the openly conservative professors fit around my dining room table. When possible, we need to bring more viewpoints to more students. I co-taught the big Election 2020 class with a liberal colleague, Professor Jen Lawless, and when we polled our students at the end of the semester, 89 percent supported more politics classes being co-taught by liberals and conservatives side-by-side. The students are hungry for both sides. It’s not enough for the majority to summarize the minority’s views — students need to hear the minority’s views directly from the minority. We need to remind them that minority views in the past included that the world is round, that slavery is wrong, and that women should vote. Co-teaching of opposing viewpoints presents an opportunity for the University to be a national leader.

Students could also benefit from more innovative programs for undergrads, such as collaborating with the Constructive Dialogue Institute. This year, twelve of 16 public universities in Virginia use their programs, and UVA should join in. I’ve been to their workshops for faculty, and use their materials in my class. Other ideas: the Moral Courage College, which helps students “hear, not fear” other perspectives, and the College Debates and Discourse Alliance. The latter is a collaboration of a number of national organizations to bring town-hall style debates run by students to other Virginia universities, and it would be great to have them working here at UVA.

We need the funding to pay for all of this, and so we’ve set up the Fund for Free Expression and Viewpoint Diversity at UVA. It’s housed in Alumni Hall, and all gifts are tax deductible. The Fund has only been in existence for two months and it’s raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, all from individual donors with gifts of all sizes. Please contact me if you’re interested in supporting a great cause.

The Fund is really making a difference on Grounds quickly, helping students to thrive by creating a culture of free speech, viewpoint diversity, critical thinking, and intellectual humility. If we can continue on this road, we’ll see a lot of improvement in those rankings and polls I cited earlier, and more importantly, in the academic excellence of a UVA education. We have a real opportunity for the University to be a national leader when it comes to free speech, and I hope you’ll join us as we work to pursue truth with courage at the greatest public university in America.

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