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Colleges do a lousy job of promoting debate on their campuses, research finds

A trend of censorship has emerged on college campuses this semester. Speakers have been shouted down at multiple universities, including the University of Michigan, William & Mary and the University of Oregon.

And while these events are concerning, one professor writes they aren’t the norm. That’s because universities won’t even touch controversial topics, George La Noue writes in an article published by the Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

“What is far more common is the avoidance of campus-sponsored events where controversial public policies are debated. Those speech vacuums, in the long run, are more dangerous to higher education’s mission of citizen preparation than episodic censorship, despite the chilling effect it creates,” the University of Maryland Baltimore County professor argues.

La Noue’s article stems from a study he recently completed titled “The Decline of Freedom of Speech and Policy Debates on Campus.” The research study probed the extent to which debate is fostered on college campuses.

From the article:

Our findings were discouraging. Except for wealthy institutions possessing high-status research centers or law schools, sponsoring debates or forums about public policy with different perspectives is not a priority in higher education. Many political issues debated everywhere else in American society are not debated at all, or only rarely, in campus public events. Almost all undergraduates can vote, but few are exposed to diverse viewpoints about the major policies which should inform their franchise.

In most cases of overt censorship on campus, the faculty have stayed on the sidelines while administrators have taken center stage to negotiate activist student demands. Naturally, those officials are not eager to encourage more controversy by scheduling events in which challenging public policy issues are debated. In any case, it should be the responsibility of faculty to see that balanced, civil, and well-informed public policy debates or forums with divergent viewpoints are available to all students. Those events should not only provide substantive information, but also create models of the kind of discourse on which our democracy depends.

La Noue suggests university trustees and state lawmakers play a role in fostering campus debate “by asking the right questions to top administrators and requiring them to make public reports.” The political science and public policy professor says robust debate on campus can help cure higher education from its rapid censorship culture and can serve as an outlet for minority views to be expressed and welcomed:

Campuses with a rich debating culture will often suffer less from the intellectual conformity that leads some community members to believe they should suppress speech and pressures others to remain silent. Moreover, policy debates can create recognition and a space for dissenting perspectives that enrich classroom discussions, research agendas, and hiring decisions. Those campuses may also reap the benefits of increased public respect, political support, and financial health.

Read the full article.

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