Free Inquiry and Expression on College Campuses

September 15, 2022

In previous editions of Distinctively W&L, I have focused primarily on financial issues:  the cost of college, the value of liberal arts education, and how we use our endowment to increase access and affordability.  Today I turn my attention to an issue much in the news, which goes straight to the heart of our mission:  the state of free inquiry and expression on college campuses.

Concerns about freedom of speech at colleges and universities arise in response to a variety of well-publicized phenomena.  Campuses sometimes prohibit certain speech if it is deemed to be hurtful or in tension with the aspiration to be an inclusive community.  Speakers are sometimes disinvited or disrupted.  Politicians sometimes attempt to influence the curriculum.  Students sometimes report reluctance to say what they think, for fear of being judged by their peers or their professors.  

Where does W&L stand on these issues?

Our commitment to free inquiry and expression is foundational, as reflected in the opening words of our mission statement:

Washington and Lee University develops students' capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely and to conduct themselves with honor, integrity, and civility.  Graduates will be prepared for lifelong learning, personal achievement, responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society.

Our very purpose is to help young people get better at examining, evaluating, and expressing points of view.  Liberal arts education teaches students to pose questions, challenge assumptions, consider competing interpretations, and draw conclusions based on the best available information and the most compelling arguments.  We strive to cultivate these habits of mind in our students, in the service of their becoming lifelong learners, responsible leaders, and engaged citizens.

Our Committee on Inclusiveness and Campus Climate signaled the depth of support for these foundational values at W&L by unanimously endorsing the highly regarded University of Chicago Principles on Freedom of Expression in 2015.  Washington and Lee was one of the first universities in the country to endorse the Chicago Principles, doing so in the same year that they were published.

Values, mission statements, and principles are important.  But so is living them out.  How are we doing?

One important indication of our performance is provided by the way our community responds to complicated situations that test our values.  Two recent examples are illuminating.

In the fall of 2020, one of our first-year writing seminars, entitled "How to Overthrow the State:  Historical Lessons from the Global South," became national news.  Television and social media distorted the course, called for it to be shut down, and even threatened the professor.  I responded with a robust public defense of the free exchange of ideas in our classrooms, and an explanation of how this course -- which helped students become more powerful and persuasive writers by studying revolutionary texts, including the Declaration of Independence -- contributes to our educational mission.  Many in the W&L community expressed appreciation for the strong affirmation and application of our values.  The piece also caught the attention of the Campus Free Expression Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, which has since invited W&L to participate in presidential forums on these important issues.

A year later, during the run-up to Virginia's gubernatorial election, members of the College Republicans were told that their distribution of campaign materials on campus violated university policy.  The policy was longstanding and well-intentioned -- aimed at complying with the IRS prohibition against the university engaging in political activity -- and had been applied consistently over the years to both Democratic and Republican groups.  But in response to this incident W&L students, faculty, and alumni expressed a desire, which I shared, for a policy that would allow the widest possible latitude for political expression.  We reviewed the legal landscape and practices at other schools and adopted an improved policy that allows our students to campaign on campus without running afoul of the IRS.

These examples speak to our values, to how deeply they are held by our community, and to the pragmatic approach we take when situations arise that make us aware of opportunities to apply them even better than we already do.

Another measure is the College Free Speech Ranking published by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which is based upon an assessment of campus policies and a student survey.  FIRE currently ranks Washington and Lee ninth among all private colleges and universities and fourth among national liberal arts colleges.  Particular strengths, as reported by our own students, include tolerance for speakers across the political spectrum, and a rejection of disruptive behavior at speaking events.  But some of our students also acknowledge discomfort expressing themselves on controversial topics.

The reluctance people sometimes feel to speak freely on difficult matters, not only at W&L but on most every college campus, is understandable.  We live in a world in which the personal and professional sanctions for saying what others perceive to be the wrong thing are often swift and merciless.  We live in a world in which disagreements frequently devolve into cruel personal attacks.  With these realities in mind, it is no wonder that many people shy away from candid conversation on divisive topics.  Our students report, unsurprisingly, that racial inequality, transgender issues, and abortion are among the subjects they find most difficult to discuss.

Although the hesitation to speak is understandable, it is also concerning.  Liberal arts education depends on discussions in which opinions are stated clearly, examined thoroughly, and revised in light of good evidence and argument.  Learning to participate in respectful debates on contested issues, by genuinely listening to others and offering up one's own views for critical examination, is essential preparation for becoming an engaged citizen and a responsible leader.  That makes it mission-critical at Washington and Lee.

The values we hold and the kind of teaching at which we excel can help to foster a culture -- both on our campus and in the wider world -- in which people are more willing and better able to talk to each other about difficult subjects.

At W&L, our core values include thinking humanely, conducting ourselves with integrity, and treating others with civility.  With the right to express ourselves freely comes the responsibility to choose our words carefully.  To be humane, we must strive always to be thoughtful, sympathetic, and kind.  To have integrity, we must treat others on social media or in email as we would treat them in person.  To be civil, we must be respectful toward everyone, including those with whom we disagree.  We must hold ourselves to these high standards and encourage each other to do better when we fall short.  Treating each other decently -- simple as it may sound -- is necessary to make everyone feel sufficiently comfortable to be themselves and speak their minds.  Our commitment to common decency must prevail on campus and throughout the extended W&L community.

Our classrooms are among the most important places where we expect and elicit the free and respectful exchange of ideas.  They are, as Provost Lena Hill stressed in her Convocation address last week, "places of discovery where varying viewpoints are not only welcome but encouraged and facilitated, sparking new ideas as well as rigorously drilling down into old ones."  I know from teaching my own seminar each fall term that W&L students cherish this environment.  They are independent thinkers who enthusiastically join their peers in wide-ranging and probing discussions led by our faculty.

By nurturing our students' capacities as free, critical, and humane thinkers, we not only expand the sphere of inquiry and expression on campus, but also prepare our graduates to be citizens who engage respectfully with others on important and contentious topics.  In doing so, we serve our mission and make an important contribution to the public good.