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Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill: Free Speech on Campus [Podcast] - BCB #64
"Prepare students to be independent thinkers."
In this episode of The Transformers we talk with Dr. Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Campus Free Expression project. She connects with everyone from members of Congress to student representatives to foster open dialogue, intellectual diversity, and free thinking.
The students who are on campus today are tomorrow's leaders, some of them are going to be elected leaders. Some of them are going to be journalists and policy leaders … Some are going to be leaders of their local PTAs. And that means having to work together.
BCB: Why don't you tell us a little bit about your background and how you got involved in conflict transformation?
JPM: I was a college professor for 11 years at St. John's College, Annapolis, the so-called Great Books College, and before that, at the College of William and Mary. And I'm now involved in higher education policy work, but I really come to it with my perspective of a liberal arts college professor—seeing success in the collegiate mission of preparing the next generation for citizenship and leadership.
Educating them as well as advancing scholarship and knowledge on college campuses by the faculty scholars really depends on open exchange, freedom of expression, and academic freedom.
Bipartisanship is a real challenge these days.
BCB: Tell us about how you became involved with the Campus Free Expression project.
JPM: To do that, I really need to talk a little bit about the Bipartisan Policy Center.
The Bipartisan Policy Center is a Washington, D.C., think tank. It is the only organization in the District of Columbia that has the word “bipartisan” in its name. Bipartisanship is a real challenge these days.
And about five years ago, two of the members of the Bipartisan Policy Center, Governor Jim Douglas, a former Republican governor of Vermont, and Governor Chris Gregoire, former Democratic Governor of Washington State, who had been involved in a number of projects at BPC, including its task force on higher education financing and student outcomes, said, “One of the other real challenges on college campuses is freedom of expression.”
And it's really mission-critical for organizations like the Bipartisan Policy Center to support colleges and universities. They're essential work in preparing the next generation to have conversations across principal disagreement and productive workable compromises, even if people don't agree on all the principles behind the various policy solutions that may be pragmatically achieved. The board and leadership here at BPC took up Govs. Greg and Douglas’s suggestion.
I'm really happy that BPC wanted to pursue this from a real collegiate mission liberal standpoint rather than really focusing on a First Amendment, legalistic approach to these issues. I was a former liberal arts professor and they brought me on board to head up this project.
We have in our country today a genuine civic skills deficit. And, I think, a crisis-level deficit.
BCB: It sounds like this is a natural outgrowth of a bipartisan project because if you have college students who are taught to speak constructively with one another and how to handle conflict, that would then make approaches easier down the road.
JPM: The students who are on campus today are tomorrow's leaders. Some of them are going to be elected leaders, some of them are going to be journalists and policy leaders of other sorts. Some are just going to be leaders of their local PTAs. And that means having to work together.
We have in our country today a genuine civic skills deficit. And, I think, a crisis-level deficit. That's really the work that we focus on in BPC generally, and certainly in our free expression.
BCB: You describe yourself on your website as working to restore open discourse on college campuses in order to create independent thinkers and engage citizens. How is that actionable? How do you actually help students do that?
JPM: The work that we do is in partnership with collegiate leaders—presidents, student affairs leaders, faculty—people in Washington, D.C., can't tell people in their various communities very easily how to implement a change.
Likewise, at BPC, we can't change college campuses directly. We're really working with them, through our academic leaders task force [which is] co-chaired by Govs. Douglas and Greg, who suggested the project at BPC, and with the rest of the task force, which is another 10 people.
Altogether the task force is a dozen academic leaders, and it includes six college presidents or recent college presidents, a vice president of diversity equity inclusion, a faculty member, a recent college graduate who's now COO of Bridge USA, and a leader of a community organization who has also served as a university trustee at a flagship public campus. [They wanted to] analyze the challenges to an open inquiry culture on campuses during this polarized time and make recommendations for presidents for faculty, for trustees, for student affairs—leaders.
We have since then been going across the country in symposia and campus visits talking about these recommendations and how campuses can tailor for their own campus. I think it's really important that the programs and curricula be tailored to the particular history, culture, and community on every campus.
BCB: So you'd have a different approach for Berkeley versus Liberty University.
JPM: And we can welcome talking about student attitudes towards freedom of expression. Because on every campus, there's very strong support for freedom of expression amongst, by far the greater number of students.
But there are ways to make these principles seem organic to a particular community. [For example, at] a Catholic Jesuit college that has a lot in its freedom of expression statement, [there was] a lot of discussion of principles about how it is that we engage with others, and what's the Christian charge about how is it that we see others. We worked with Metro State University of Denver, and that is a very diverse public campus where most people are commuting to campus, and that [is] a different community. And they really wanted their freedom of expression statement to kind of acknowledge the diversity of their community.
The University of Maryland—one of the freedom of expression statements that is cited in our task force—I love how it situates its freedom of expression statement within a value statement about what is the university about. Because freedom of expression is a means to the end of a campus community, which is to disseminate advanced knowledge.
87 percent [of students] very strongly favor free and open exchange on college campuses. And at the same time, one-third of students favor speech codes, a quarter favor disinviting speakers, and one out of five favor limiting expression of political viewpoints that seem biased or offensive to some.
BCB: I wanted to touch on something you mentioned earlier. You have a link to a poll that states that 65 percent of students agree strongly that their campus climate prevents people from saying what they'd like. And then the same study says that over 20 percent of students want to prohibit hate speech. So how do you get the 65 percent and the 20 percent to work together?
JPM: You have put your finger, Mary Beth, on the absolutely critical challenge through the real paradox. You mentioned that 20 percent oppose some social speech. So let me offer some further context.
You ask students if they support the First Amendment or if they support students being exposed to a whole variety of viewpoints, or if they favor free and open exchange on college campuses there's overwhelming support for those principles. The Heterodox Academy study that came out in early June found that 87.4 percent very strongly favor free and open exchange on college campuses.
And at the same time, one-third of students favor speech codes, a quarter favor disinviting speakers, and one out of five favor limiting expression of political viewpoints that seem biased or offensive to some. The same fraction, one-fifth, oppose allowing a group that supports gun rights to be organized as a registered student group. One out of six oppose handing out pamphlets with a Christian message on them.
All of us who are thinking about freedom of expression on college campuses, and all of us who are thinking about the crisis of open exchange—conversation across differences in our country more generally—really need to be focused on this paradox. How is it that there's such strong support on one hand for open inquiry and hearing different viewpoints, and at the same time there's worry that people say, “I can't express my points of view on campus, or at least some others can't express their point of view on campus.”
That's the paradox that we need to think about. One way of thinking about that paradox is to understand that we need to be thinking about perhaps two groups on a college campus. The overwhelming number who say that they want to have exposure to all kinds of points of view and have the open debate, and the small censorious minority—which has a tremendously outsized impact on chilling speech on campus—that are willing to engage in callouts to shame their colleagues on social media and to use the heckler's veto.
And I think that minority accounts for why so many people feel that they can't share their views openly on campus.
BCB: It sounds like there's a lot more to this than, “I want to say what I want to say, but you need to shut up.” It's a lot more complex than that.
JPM: I want to kind of recast that. A very small number on campus are willing to use these sorts of tactics such as the heckler’s veto. But because of the power of social media today and the way in which social media is able to create a firestorm and can be used to socially shame and ostracize students on campus, there only has to be a few on campus who are willing to use those tactics to make many people across the political spectrum say, “Gosh, maybe it's safer for me not to say what I'm thinking about this.”
Students today, even more than was the case generation ago, have grown up in neighborhoods where their next-door neighbors are much more likely to have similar political views to read the same news sources, to have the same socioeconomic status.
BCB: It sounds like you are focusing more on developing skills rather than saying, “This is what your policy should say.” What kind of skills do you think students should be developing to support what your mission is?
JPM: That skills question is excellent. I think students arrive on college campuses today without those skills. And people don't have the skills to really listen to those who have different points of view. And so why would one think that a young person matriculating on a college campus would have those skills?
They see politicians, they see celebrities, indeed rewarded for the opposite, for sometimes being willing to call out other people. Students today, even more than was the case generation ago, have grown up in neighborhoods where their next-door neighbors are much more likely to have similar political views to read the same news sources, to have the same socioeconomic status. It used to be that if you joined a Girl Scout troop or a Boy Scout troop, you meet people who had a lot of different backgrounds. Now, a lot of people are the same at high school, any of these civic organizations.
We're at a particularly challenging time. We have students who are growing up in more homogeneous neighborhoods. Students who are arriving on campus now have just come out of the pandemic, where they were, in many cases, less able to socialize during their high school years and get practiced at even very positive in-person interactions. And they're at a time when social media is able to be weaponized, even a classroom comment. So students are in a more challenging time.
They're arriving with fewer skills. And so, the task force really recommends focusing on skills of knowing the value of freedom of expression; how it's been used as a progressive force in our history; having verbal strategies to create the moment for grace; and listening, to be able to be more empathetic with those who have different points of view.
Faculty and student affairs leaders [should] have those skills—to create those spaces in a classroom and in the quad and in the dorms—for students to have that kind of conversation. It's really helpful for students even to be able to say something like, “Gosh, I don't see it that way. Can you tell me how you came to that conclusion?” Having a bunch of little sentences or questions like that can help people give others, give themselves, a moment to process what somebody has said with which they might strongly disagree, and give the other person the chance to explain him or herself.
BCB: You're also involved with freshman orientation, and I was interested to find that some universities and colleges are now integrating what you're talking about with it. I was surprised to find that Purdue, for example, has been doing this for a number of years.
JPM: You were talking about value statements earlier, and from the start, universities like Purdue are saying, “This is how we're going to handle conflict and expressing your opinion on campus.”
Later when you go graduate to be a citizen in a public square, you have options and agency about how to respond to speech that you find either incorrect or even genuinely vile.
BCB: Can you talk a little bit more about grabbing students as they arrive on campus? Saying, “All right, here's how we're going to communicate.”
JPM: Yeah. Mary Beth, I love that question. We, the task force, were so excited and glad to [be in] the moment when students arrive on campus. It’s a really critical moment because students are so excited and they're meeting new friends. And so you can't thoroughly build up all those skills in a freshman orientation when you're also telling them, “Here's where to find the student doctor's office, and here's where the cafeterias are.”
But it's a unique opportunity for colleges and universities to signal the values that define that campus and the collegiate experience and what it is that students are going to be asked to do in the next four years. There's a bunch of different ways to do that.
Purdue University has been doing this for a number of years, as you said. A look on YouTube [will show] at least one of the orientations, and they have some remarks by leaders. The key thing about the Purdue orientation is they have skits.
I believe [the skits present] three situations. A classroom situation, a quad situation, [and they] act out some situation where somebody says something that another doesn't like. One of the situations is to confront what is sometimes called a confrontational evangelist.
The classroom situation is something … that is uncomfortable in the classroom. And then the upperclassmen who are performing the skits act out different ways that the response could happen. In a panel of faculty and other leaders, [they] described the various responses and key takeaways for the students
One is that freedom of expression is an important value at Purdue University, and students are going to be expected to be in situations that they will find challenging. Second, they have choices about how it is that they can respond. If you hear something that's really uncomfortable, you can just walk away from this situation. If it's something you encounter in a quad, you can engage this speaker in a respectful way.
So as somebody in that situation as a student, and later when you go graduate to be a citizen in a public square, you have options and agency about how to respond to speech that you find either incorrect or even genuinely vile.
Thirdly, it signals that the university is taking on responsibility for helping students build up these skills. There's no reason to think that somebody just finishing high school is gonna be ready to handle difficult conversations where they hear views with which they really disagree.
And the university has said, “Our expectation of you on our campus is that you're gonna be ready to handle this, but we're here to help you with it.” I think that signal from colleges and universities that they're helping students to build up those skills is a really important [one].
And other universities have really taken on it themselves. I could mention the University of Chicago statement that is so famous as being the first free expression statement of the most recent years. Fostering the ability of members of the university community to engage in debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the university's educational mission. It's always been true, but in this extremely polarized time, it's especially [important] that universities take up that charge.
People describe a crisis of free expression today on campus. I don't think that language is overblown.
BCB: You mentioned Purdue freshman orientation, in which they have upperclassmen leading the way in doing the skits and demonstrating what these skills look like. Can you talk about how important it is to have upperclassmen doing this rather than an outside group or administrators?
JPM: I think it's really important that students be leaders amongst themselves. Washington University in St. Louis is another example … they had an orientation program where it was a common reading program for first-year students, and they read [a] book about hate speech and free speech. Those conversations with the first-year students were also led by upperclassmen. And I think that's one way of students showing leadership amongst themselves. But I think it's also really the number of student groups that are doing this work on their own campuses.
I may highlight groups like Bridge USA, which now has over 50 chapters where they are depolarizing college campuses not by finding middle ground, but by finding ways that people and students with different points of view can gather to discuss really challenging topics.
Students are already leaders, so we really need to engage them. I think it says something that the students are seeing for themselves that this is needed. And again, this isn't a top-down situation where it's imposed. They're seeing the need for this. And I think this is, in a way, a twist on what we saw in the sixties, where we had this protest culture. And now here we're seeing the other side of it.
BCB: Is this regular societal change? How did we get here?
JPM: The sixties were an important moment. We saw lots of student protests and efforts to limit expression on campus, or some efforts to try to limit expression in campus in a broader society.
People describe a crisis of free expression today on campus … I don't think that language is overblown. But the pendulum swung again. [In the] early 20th century, faculty lost their jobs over controversial statements, and the American Association of University Professors was established to protect faculty academic freedom.
Through the McCarthy period, faculty were reported to the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. There's always a time when open expression is more challenged than it is at other times.
And so people shouldn't be too discouraged about the present moment. We have lots of resources, and lots of leaders on campuses, and student leaders, too, who are interested in opening up discourse on campus.
Only about half of students are comfortable expressing disagreement with others in the classroom, whether that's an instructor or other students. So for men, for women, for students of color, for white students, it’s basically only about half.
BCB: How do you answer the challenge that cancel culture doesn't really exist, and it's just a matter of people being held accountable for what they're saying and teaching? If someone came to you with that argument, how would you answer that?
JPM: I would go back to talking about the collegiate mission. I mean, the purpose of college and university is to prepare students to be independent thinkers, to allow faculty to advance the horizons of knowledge. And we just have tremendous evidence that people are not able to test their ideas openly on a campus.
And it is not just true of people who are on the most extreme political fringes. For example, BPC did a survey in collaboration with Morning Consult and found that people are more comfortable in a classroom than they are in social media.
And there are other surveys that show that, but the Gallup survey that we've mentioned previously said only about half of students are comfortable expressing disagreement with others in the classroom, whether that's an instructor or other students. So for men, for women, for students of color, for white students, it’s basically only about half. And the classroom should be the place where faculty are providing guardrails and guidance, where people are testing ideas most vigorously and really stress-testing their ideas.
[If] only half of students are comfortable expressing ideas, then half are at least sometimes keeping ideas to themselves. That means that every student isn't getting what they came to college for. As a political society, we're depending on colleges to … prepare people to engage tough ideas and really have a frank and honest discussion about all the serious challenges that are facing us.
They need to ask questions and they also need to have the civic courage to be able to say something when they think no one else in the room is going to agree with them.
BCB: If someone's not saying something, that's probably not healthy.
JPM: Is definitely not healthy. UNC has done some wonderful research and I really want to credit the University of North Carolina, first at the Chapel Hill campus in 2020, and now eight campuses across the system.
They have researchers there, Jennifer Larson and several others, who have surveyed the open inquiry culture on campuses. Great credit to UNC for … supporting that research, making it so publicly available, and showcasing the things that are going well on campuses, and the real challenges [about] how social media has an impact on the classroom.
In a 2020 survey, 43 percent of self-identified conservatives, 25 percent of self-identified moderate moderates, and 10 percent of self-identified liberals say that they sometimes keep classroom comments to themselves for fear that they will be posted on social media. That speaks to a specific motive … if basically half the people are keeping their opinions to themselves sometimes in the classroom, it is eroding the opportunities for success of the collegiate mission to make these students independent thinkers and to make them ready for civic leadership.
There's kind of a reward for not rocking the boat. But colleges, universities are an institution that we have had for almost a millennium exactly to be places [where] ideas are advanced. You should be able to raise any idea, however radical.
And that's just a very, very unusual institution. Colleges are really unusual communities. And I think they are meant to be that way. They're meant to be that way. I think it should be a discomforting and disorienting experience to be a new person on a campus because you are gonna be in a setting that is very different from anywhere else, any other kind of institution.
It's really our special kind of institution for challenging ideas. It should feel very stressful to enter that community because you're really being stretched—should really be stretched intellectually. No wonder it's hard sometimes.
Freedom of expression was essential to the Civil Rights Movement, to the women's suffrage–even to movements today, like Black Lives Matter, the Me Too Movement. Free speech and freedom of expression is an opportunity to challenge the status quo.
BCB: But you're not just saying, “Hey, throw 'em in there and let 'em figure it out.” You're also advocating, helping people build the tools and the skills that they need to navigate that.
JPM: Faculty are modeling how to be questioners. That's the role that faculty are having. There's all kinds of ways too that universities can say, “Look, speech codes are always on behalf of the status quo, and freedom of expression is ultimately a liberating, inclusive force.”
[One way is] helping students to know how freedom of expression was essential to the Civil Rights Movement, to the women's suffrage–even to movements today, like Black Lives Matter, the Me Too Movement. Free speech and freedom of expression is an opportunity to challenge the status quo.
Academic freedom and curricular matters are fundamentally matters of campus governance, not matters for state legislatures. Governmental entities should not be prescribing how these matters should be handled or prescribing certain topics or methodologies.
BCB: It's interesting that you mentioned the status quo because it mentions on your website that your staff engages and works with the staff of Congressional members to advocate this idea that the universities themselves are best off being a steward of free expression. Could you tell us a little bit about how that happens?
JPM: As I mentioned, the academic leaders task force at BPC was chaired by our two former Govs. Jim Douglas and Chris Gregoire of Vermont and Washington State, respectively. They've been just terrific advocates on this particular question.
Obviously, higher education is touched on at all levels of government, and we've seen a lot of action around state legislation touching on curricular matters and academic freedom matters. And Govs. Gregoire and Douglas clearly made the case that governors and state legislatures have important oversight roles with regard to public higher education in their states—safeguarding the significant investment citizens make in those institutions.
Academic freedom and curricular matters are fundamentally matters of campus governance, not matters for state legislatures. Governmental entities [should not be] prescribing how these matters should be handled or prescribing certain topics or methodologies.
It's important for campus governance to matter, to prevail in these matters. The other aspect of that is it's important for campus leaders to really think about ways to restore public trust in higher education. We've seen a general erosion and trust in institutions in our country.
Higher education has certainly been impacted by that. Only half of Americans say that colleges and universities are having a positive effect on where things are going. That's really a shocking number. There are different reasons people offer when probed for that.
They're worried about the costs of college, they're worrying about our campuses. I think this question about our campuses—places of open inquiries—[shows that] institutions have lost trust from people. State legislatures and other governmental entities shouldn't see freedom of expression and academic freedom and curricular matters as part of state and federal governance.
It's also important for higher education leaders to think about: “How can we communicate to our alumni and to the members of our community that we're genuinely true homes to open inquiry?”
I think when we're better able to situate our controversies and issues in a broader context, it diffuses some of the anger and the polarization.
BCB: That is a perfect lead-in to the last question that I wanted to ask you—this background that you have in the Great Books Method. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about that, and how that affected your shaping for the position you're in now.
JPM: I was a faculty member at St. John's College, a Great Books College. I was on the Annapolis campus rather than the Santa Fe campus. I was interested in the study of core texts rather than Great Books.
Curricular matters were of great interest. We can't contextualize our contemporary issues and debates without being able to situate them in the history of our country, how our governing institutions work, and the broader intellectual tradition we have.
Just to give one example, during the pandemic, there were lots of controversies about mask mandates and the motives of people on various sides and the arguments for that. And I think it's really helpful to situate that debate in the context of the discussion between the Federalists and the anti-Federalists and to say, in governing a big country like ours that is very diverse, very large, with a lot of different points of view, there has been disagreement for centuries about what's the role of central government, or federal government, in even the state governments, in making these sorts of decisions.
I think when we're better able to situate our controversies and issues in a broader context, it diffuses some of the anger and the polarization. This is just the latest iteration in a long series of debates in our country about the role of government in a geographically large, pluralistic democracy.
And over these many hundreds of years, people have been on different sides. Each side has a long and storied intellectual and political heritage to it that deserves some respect, even if I disagree with the other side in the policy debate that is in front of me today.
BCB: And if students want to be involved with what you're doing, where should they go to become part of it?
JPM: The Bipartisan Policy Center has interns. We have spring, summer, and fall interns. And people can learn about that by going to Bipartisan Policy Center internships.
And it's not just internships and campus free expression. Our health policy, education policy, energy policy, housing—there are lots of opportunities for students to come for an internship that can be either in person or hybrid.
We have a newsletter that we send out once a month with our upcoming events and our monthly “What We’re Reading,” with the top 10 reads that we recommend on campus free expression.
BCB: Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, thank you so much for joining us today. We really appreciate your time.
Homepage of the project sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Follow Dr. Merrill on Twitter.
Information on applying for the Bipartisan Policy Center’s spring, summer, and fall internships.
Article by JPM about returning to her alma mater to discuss the First Amendment with 60 freshmen.