When Conor Healy arrived as a freshman at Harvard, he felt he entered a campus that had issues conducting discourse and exposing students to a variety of viewpoints.
So he did something about it: He helped establish a group to promote those ideals at the Ivy League institution.
“It was a very personal thing for me to move to a place I felt was so riddled with flaws in that sense and one of the ways that I think I’ve dealt with that is by advocating for something better,” the junior student told The College Fix in a recent phone interview.
Healy, along with other students, formed the Harvard Open Campus Initiative. The student group, which was formally recognized by the university last fall, seeks to “push back against ideological forces in academia, and in society more broadly, that want to shut down free speech.”
Similar groups have sprouted up at other campuses, including Dartmouth, Princeton and Duke. Their aim is similar to that of Harvard’s Open Campus Initiative: promoting viewpoint diversity, free speech and open discussion.
“Ours is the goal of supporting and promoting the diversity of thought, and the right of all Dartmouth College students to advance their academic and personal convictions in an environment free from any intimidation or violence,” Dartmouth freshman Rachna Shah said of her group’s mission.
The groups stress they are nonpartisan and apolitical and include members from across the ideological spectrum. At Harvard, Healy said, at least half of the members are “card-carrying Democrats.”
“It’s not really about political ideology,” Healy said.
Campus events spark groups’ creation
Interviews with members of the Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth “Open Campus” clubs reveal the specific circumstance on each campus that sparked creation of the groups.
Dartmouth’s Open Campus Coalition was founded in spring 2016 around the same time the campus was enveloped in controversy after a “Blue Lives Matter” sign was taken down on campus.
Shah said the group’s inception came after its founder, Regan Roberts, met with the college’s president to discuss the “hostile campus climate” after a Black Lives Matter protest held there in the fall of 2015.
At Princeton, senior Josh Freeman said students established the group in 2015 after activists demanded the university remove former U.S. President and Princeton president Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton’s business school.
Freeman said some students involved in the Wilson debate took a “my way or the highway” approach. His group formed because its members wanted to entertain a “full discussion” on the issue.
At Harvard, the Open Campus Initiative’s origins lie in a seminar course Healy and his friends did that provided an overview of the First Amendment.
“Myself and a few other students wanted to stay involved so we sought a group on campus that advocates for such principles and discovered there was no such group so the logical thing to do was to create one,” Healy said.
Groups bring speakers to campus
Sticking to their mission statement, the “Open Campus” groups look to invite speakers with a variety of opinions onto campus.
“The idea of speaking events is very important to me. I’ve always been a believer in the way that that format can be good for a community,” Healy said.
Speakers at Harvard this fall will include comedian Dave Rubin, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray.
Murray has become a flashpoint in the battle for free speech on college campuses after he was shouted down during a lecture at Middlebury College earlier this year.
Dartmouth’s Open Campus Coalition plans to focus on free speech during the fall semester and has invited speakers relevant to that topic. Planned speakers included attorney Harvey Silverglate, co-founder of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, and Nadine Strossen, a New York University law professor who previously was president of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Shah said the group also hopes to host a student debate on free speech.