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Free Speech and Social Equity: Branches of the Same Tree

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
April 10, 2023

In February the University of Wisconsin System released the results of a student survey on freedom of speech on system campuses. The survey process itself generated some controversy. The first attempt to administer it was shelved after several campus officials expressed concern, culminating in the resignation of the interim chancellor at one system University. While some expressed concern over the premise of the survey, and its funding source, the concern I heard most was around the intent of the survey. Mainly, there was worry it was a politically-motivated fishing expedition that would be used to punish the universities in the system.

The results themselves were less exciting than the process. There is a lot to unpack, but here are the highlights that stood out to me:

  • Students were least comfortable expressing their views about transgender issues and abortion (22 percent and 17 percent stated they were somewhat or very uncomfortable expressing views on these issues respectively).
  • A small but not inconsequential percentage of students (21.4 percent) agreed that views expressed on campus that are perceived to cause harm to specific groups of people should be banned.
  • 6 percent of students thought that an instructor whose comments cause perceived harm to specific groups of people should be reported to university administration.
  • 1 percent of students agreed a speaker with an offensive message should be disinvited from campus.
  • Only 9 percent reported that instructors actively discourage them from exploring a variety of viewpoints.
  • Very liberal students are most likely to report they express their views on controversial topics in class.

The overall results present a nuanced picture of free speech and expression on campus. They suggest there are things campuses and instructors can do to improve their free speech and expression climate, but they do not suggest widespread censoring of viewpoints or partisan indoctrination. The results tell me that our campuses are a microcosm of our society. As such, I think it is important to take free speech issues seriously, one’s personal background and belief system should not be a barrier to learning on campus.

It strikes me that the argument for free speech on campus is very similar to the argument for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs. DEI initiatives also work to ensure one’s personal background and belief system is not a barrier to learning on campus. Despite their similarities the concepts of equity and free speech loom large in the culture wars raging in our society. In Florida for example, College System leadership is vocal about removing DEI work and references from higher education. Florida also conducted a university free speech survey similar to the aforementioned one in Wisconsin.

The conflict between two concepts that are so similar to one another is enough to make you dizzy. If everyone wants the same thing, to make sure campuses are welcoming places that celebrate diversity (demographic, ideological and intellectual), why do we care if the pursuit is under the banner of DEI or free speech? Even as I write the question I know the answer is politics. The politicization of these terms, and the willingness to associate them both with opposite ends of the political spectrum, risks turning them from meaningful concepts to hollow buzz words with no practical meaning.

So what do we do about it, especially those of us in academic Public Administration, a field that has adopted social equity as one of its pillars? First, I think we need to work to define social equity as specifically as possible. The clearer the definition is expressed to external audiences, the less room there is for the term to be caricatured or coopted. Second, we need to embrace the value of free speech and expression as explicitly as possible. While I agree that the phrase free speech is being weaponized for political purposes in higher education, the concept itself is still a core democratic value on which our administrative systems are built.

Of course there are very real differences between social equity and free speech. Those differences are rooted in history, privilege, practice and so much more. But, that does not mean we cannot recognize and build off of the areas where the underlying motivations for both concepts overlap. In fact, I would go as far as to say those of us committed to the pillars of PA have a duty to do so.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin  Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves as an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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