Higher Ed’s Delicate Dance: Safeguarding Freedoms and Stewarding Culture

Kristin Hansen • March 21, 2023 • 7 min read

How is your alma mater reconciling its commitments to free speech, academic freedom, inclusion, and belonging?

Perhaps, like many of us, you’re watching your alma mater grapple with hard questions about how to honor principles of free speech and preserve academic freedom, while also stewarding cultural norms of respect, inclusion, and belonging. In theory, at least, these various aims don’t need to be in tension. The reality looks a bit messier, however.

Whether viewed from the internal vantage point of campus curricular and co-curricular life – or through the amplifying lens of sensational media coverage – it’s evident that administrators, faculty, and students on many college campuses have entered a tumultuous period of revisiting institutional principles and renegotiating institutional norms. 

While laws protecting free speech, prohibiting unfair labor practices, and preventing hostile work environments provide important guardrails, colleges and universities still have considerable wiggle room to shape curriculum, set culture, and guide behavior. On many campuses today, long-prevailing policies and practices designed to balance freedoms and protections are undergoing new scrutiny from both internal and external stakeholders.  

In the midst of intense crosswinds, college leaders and administrators are feeling the squeeze. How will they balance the interests of a professor who feels academically constrained with the complaint of a student who feels culturally marginalized? Or the demands of an alumni association that call for stronger free speech protections with the emotional fallout of a hate symbol taped up cruelly inside a student dorm? 

In so many ways, college and university campuses today are “Ground Zero” for the big political, social, and cultural questions America is struggling to navigate. And we shouldn’t be surprised. All of us have a huge stake in raising up a future generation that is equipped with the “right” knowledge, skills, experiences, and norms to carry our country forward. If only we all agreed on what is right.

Since we clearly don’t share a singular vision for how best to balance freedoms and protections across all institutions of higher learning, it’s time for all of us – college administrators, faculty, students, alumni, donors – to lend our support to curricular and co-curricular (i.e. outside the classroom) approaches that can help all stakeholders navigate this fraught moment for higher ed in America. 

What might these curricular and co-curricular approaches look like? Fortunately, many are already well-defined and are ripe for broader adoption across colleges and universities. At the core, what all of these approaches share are twin commitments to humility and heterodoxy. Embracing humility suggests that no one has all the answers, and that the best solutions emerge from deep and genuine consideration of diverse perspectives. Embracing heterodoxy honors the core mission of educational institutions to expose students to the widest possible array of ideas, including (perhaps especially) unpopular ideas. 

Curricular approaches

The burden rests heavily on college faculty to create classrooms that foster intellectual inquiry and invite the active participation of all students. For any educator grappling with questions of how to cultivate a robust, healthy learning environment, several curricular programs and tools are available. 

The Constructive Dialogue Institute’s website is an excellent “first stop” for any college-level (or for that matter, high-school level) educator who wishes to create dynamic, engaging classrooms. By accessing CDI’s structured curricular tools and a comprehensive free resource library, any college educator can transform and elevate the dialectic learning experience.  

Co-curricular approaches

College and university students don’t just learn in the classroom, of course. These formative years contain rich co-curricular opportunities as well. Students, faculty, administrators — and even alumni communities — are all empowered to deliver co-curricular experiences that advance learning, while transcending and transforming otherwise paralyzing conflicts.

Organizations like BridgeUSA, Braver Angels, and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) are leading the way, through innovative programs like Campus Debates, and through a wider array of campus events and chapter-based programs that create physical and virtual spaces for free speech, constructive dialogue, and perspective-sharing among college-level students.

Holistic approaches

Colleges and universities that wish to tackle these questions more holistically, implementing both curricular and co-curricular models in tandem, would be well-served to review and contemplate adoption of many of the principles contained in Heterodox Academy’s recently published guidebook, Reclaiming the Culture of Higher Education. This free downloadable guide, which includes reflection questions to help shape constructive dialogue, offers best practice concepts for administrators, faculty, and student groups to reflect on, discuss, and evaluate for institutional and cultural fit.

Another “hot off the presses” resource comes from the collaborative efforts of the Constructive Dialogue Institute (already cited above) and the Aspen Institute’s Citizenship and American Identity Program. Their free downloadable report, Transforming Conflict on College Campuses, offers a treasure trove of principles, strategies, and resources for those engaged on the front lines of conflict.

An additional, insightful guide for college campuses is Creating Space for Democracy: A Primer on Dialogue and Deliberation in Higher Education. This published anthology of case studies, compiled by Nick Longo and Tim Schaffer, provides many compelling examples of American college campuses that are successfully navigating the complexity of balancing freedoms and protections, while also equipping students with critical skills in civil discourse, dialogue, and deliberation that will serve them throughout their adult lives. 

Last but not least, a measurement and evaluation perspective is offered by the Institute for Citizens and Scholars’ free downloadable report, Mapping Civic Measurement: How Are We Assessing Readiness and Opportunities for an Engaged Citizenry? This report inventories a wide array of rubrics and evaluative methods used today across K-12 and higher ed, with recommendations for how we leverage measurement systems to shore up universal civic learning.