University commits to free speech initiatives after coming last in nationwide survey

DePauw University's president met with FIRE and announced a set of action items following the survey results, which put the school last in the latter's '2021 College Free Speech Rankings.'

The Indiana university ranked 154th out of 154 universities surveyed by FIRE.

After her institution came in last place in a recent nationwide report on campus free speech among 154 colleges, Depauw University President Lori White released a presidential update on Wednesday reaffirming the Indiana university’s commitment to freedom of expression. 

“Although that number represents less than four percent of higher education institutions in the U.S. and did not include many of our peers, my priority is to create an environment where all of our students are comfortable expressing their viewpoints and listening to those of others,” White said in the Dec. 15 statement. 

The report, “The 2021 College Free Speech Rankings,” was published by Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on Sept. 21. 

FIRE’s rankings were based on its survey of 37,000 students at 159 universities that assessed how campuses respect free expression. 

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The list stems from a FIRE conducted survey that takes into consideration the opinion of to learn how the campuses respond to and respect free expression on campus. Students are encouraged to respond with their own experiences of the free speech climate on their campus. 

Factors included “the ability to discuss challenging topics” such as race and gender and if students “hold back from openly sharing their views,” according to the nonprofit’s website. 

White met with FIRE’s staff following the report. 

FIRE Senior Program Officer Mary Zoeller told Campus Reform that she and colleague Sean Stevens “met with the president and her chief of staff a few weeks ago to discuss DePauw’s standing as the lowest ranked school in our 2021 College Free Speech Rankings.”

During the meeting, Zoeller said, the group discussed “concrete, positive steps” DePauw could take to improve their ratings. These steps included reviewing speech codes, developing a free expression policy, and instituting curriculum about free expression.

“President White has recently taken several steps to ensure students feel comfortable and safe to express their opinions on the DePauw campus,” Dieter said. “Since she joined the DePauw family, she has maintained that DePauw can develop leaders the world needs by fostering two important and compatible values: freedom of expression and a commitment to diversity and inclusion.”

White, is a member of the Academic Leaders Task Force on Campus Free Expression, a national organization that published a report, “A New Roadmap,” on Nov. 30. 

The report identifies 4 challenges universities must tackle to preserve freedom of expression and maintain an environment that is welcoming to academic freedom. The challenges address protecting purportedly hurtful speech, viewpoint diversity, defending the right to controversial speech, and “civil discourse.” 

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White told DePauw Dec. 15 that the university will pursue six initiatives based on the task force report’s principles, including the adoption of a “Freedom of Expression statement” as well as a “module on free expression during new student orientation beginning with this Fall.”

The statement, “Davidson Commitment to Free Expression,” begins with the following affirmation:

“We believe in free speech, free expression, and academic freedom. We believe in a robust exchange of ideas because we believe in an ethical pursuit of truth. Our official documents have outlined our commitment and, indeed, our obligation to uphold those beliefs.”

When asked for comment, Davidson College referred to the school’s news article breaking on the statement.

Freedom of expression has been a recurring problem among many higher education facilities.  In September, Campus Reform cited a study that found that 80% of college students self-censor on campus. Additionally, 48% admitted to being uncomfortable expressing their views and opinions during in-class discussions that could be considered controversial. 

Additionally, Campus Reform has covered lawsuits against universities that claim the schools censor or restrict speech. 

In April, SpeechFirst filed a lawsuit against Virginia Tech University that accused the school of enforcing policies that “restrain, deter, depress, and punish speech about the political and social issue of the day.”

Four months later, Alliance Defending Freedom and Montclair State University settled a lawsuit over the latter’s free speech policies.