Balancing Free Speech and the Inclusive Campus

Council Insights: Council of Board Professionals

By Brian Steeves December 19, 2023 December 20th, 2023 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

College and university campuses are forums for vigorous free speech and debate as well as safe spaces that aim to create a sense of belonging. Yet what happens when those two deeply held values are at odds with one another?

In late November, the Council of Board Professionals convened to discuss this important topic. Following framing remarks to situate the discussion in context of recent international events, the council discussed recent experiences at universities where the debate over free speech has taken center stage. One council member noted campus discourse amid war in Israel required their relatively new president to rise to a challenge for which there really is no available preparation.

Many council members noted that this tension between fundamental values of the academy is ongoing, and not new. However, specific externalities which are not on the mind of the board and president or chancellor can suddenly emerge and shift them into “crisis mode.” One council member spoke to the ways their university leadership felt they had to move from tracking student outcomes on campus to tracking military outcomes half a world away, with an eye towards how they might impact the university community.

While individual crisis events may be impossible to anticipate, council members agreed that regular communication and board engagement on this topic is important—as is alignment between board leadership and the president or chancellor. Having ongoing conversations about free speech, academic freedom, and the principles colleges or universities will apply when controversy erupts is vital to being prepared. This is particularly true when outside groups and organizations attempt to influence how higher education institutions should respond to various events.

One tangible suggestion that emerged from the council members’ discussion is to create a checklist of the types of conversations that boards and presidents should have before a crisis is upon them. Such proactive conversations can be structured to educate the board on academic freedom, free speech, and inclusion and belonging, and included as part of board member onboarding. In this process, board professionals across a variety of titles are particularly well positioned to help the president and board create guiding principles that will assist the institution in navigating the controversies that will inevitably continue to emerge around these issues. (AGB’s recent publication Freedom of Speech and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on Campus offers a useful set of recommendations for board members and presidents, as well as a set of discussion questions.)

In addition to board leadership, other stakeholders may also benefit from discussion of the university’s policies, capabilities and constraints in these areas. Several members who reported success spoke to “group overviews” with “full-campus involvement” to create statements, FAQs, and other language to guide future responses, as well as education to student leaders on the ranges of appropriate activities. Members noted the challenge of preventing these discussions from feeling punitive regarding specific incidents, which can be difficult in the context of what may be perceived as an increased pace of such incidents. Some members at larger institutions or systems spoke to the value of including campus security in conversations around engaging in a mutually respectful manner with students.

Trust and confidence between the board and president are necessary ingredients for advancing the mission of an institution or system. By using recent events as an opportunity to build greater shared understanding and establishing clear guidelines, colleges and universities will be better positioned to uphold their values and truly be forums for debate within a community of belonging.

Brian Steeves is executive director and corporate secretary for the University of Minnesota Board of Regents.