ACE Survey Finds College Presidents Striving to Balance Free Speech with Inclusive Practices
April 10, 2018

Most college presidents are concerned about protecting free speech and promoting campus inclusion, yet they also overwhelmingly believe it is important for colleges to allow students to be exposed to all types of speech even if they may find it offensive or biased, according to a new national online survey by ACE.

The survey is part of the ACE Center for Policy Research and Strategy (CPRS) Pulse Point series, short surveys of college and university presidents on timely higher education topics. A total of 471 presidents responded to this survey, which was conducted earlier this year.

"It’s encouraging to see college presidents taking this issue very seriously," said ACE President Ted Mitchell. “Not only are they aware of the tensions and acknowledging them, they’re focused on implementing concerted strategies to address the issue and ensure that our nation’s campuses are committed to civil discourse and the free expression of all views.”

Virtually all presidents (98 percent) agreed that protecting freedom of speech and promoting an inclusive society are extremely or very important to democracy. Presidents overwhelmingly indicated that it is more important for colleges to allow students to be exposed to all types of speech (96 percent) than it is for colleges to protect students by prohibiting offensive or biased speech.

“I think this shows us that presidents don’t see inclusion and free expression as separate paradigms,” said Lorelle Espinosa, assistant vice president for CPRS. “In fact, managing this tension is about finding a balance between the two ideals by promoting and modeling civil discourse, which is representative of individuals in our richly diverse democracy.”

However, presidents are more optimistic about how their own institutions handle the relationship between free speech and inclusion than about what is happening elsewhere. Almost 80 percent of presidents indicated that campus inclusion and free speech work well together on their own campuses; however, only 13 percent indicated they believe there is a similar connection at a national level.

Other findings include:

Perceived Relationship Between Campus Inclusion and Free Speech 

  • Seventy percent of college presidents are very or somewhat concerned about violence and student safety when managing efforts around campus inclusion and free speech. 
  • About 40 percent of presidents thought the relationship would worsen over time nationally versus just 9 percent of presidents who thought it would worsen on their own campuses. 

Student Voices on Campus 

  • Just 9 percent of all presidents reported that demonstrations or protests have been held against controversial speakers on their own campuses. 
  • Thirty-seven percent said students held demonstrations or protests regarding issues of diversity and inclusion at their institutions. 
  • Presidents draw clear lines when it comes to how students choose to express their views on campus and what is acceptable—using violence to stop a speech was uniformly rejected. 
  • Eighty-five percent of presidents said that shouting down speakers or trying to prevent them from talking was never acceptable. 
  • Distributing pamphlets or literature on controversial issues and engaging in protests against speakers were identified as the most acceptable forms of engagement. 

Preparing for and Managing Conflict 

  • Presidents rely most heavily on their vice presidents of student affairs/deans of students (89 percent), provosts/chief academic officers (87 percent), and legal counsel (83 percent) to set institutional policy on potential conflict between campus inclusion and free speech. 
  • Presidents appear to utilize an “all hands on deck” approach when it comes to responding to active conflict between campus inclusion and free speech, including chief diversity officers (55 percent), campus police (79 percent), and public affairs/communications officers (80 percent). 
  • Slightly over half of presidents indicated that they have the tools necessary to address conflict on campus between free speech and inclusion. 
  • Clear, public statements (88 percent) and open community forums (80 percent) are among the top practices used to manage tensions. 

In addition to the Pulse Point survey this year, ACE collaborated with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Gallup to compare select findings with Knight’s 2017 survey of college students on the First Amendment. Overall, students were more likely than presidents to feel colleges should protect students from offensive or biased speech, but had similar views on the importance of free speech rights and promoting inclusion on campus. The survey comparisons are explored in ACE’s blog, Higher Education Today​.​

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