I recently spoke to a right-leaning group on the campus of my alma mater, the University of North Carolina, about my post-college career as an advocate for conservative principles and policy. I was somewhat embarrassed to admit to the group that I never did any meaningful advocacy for the cause as a college student, but I know I am not alone. Many right-leaning students on campuses across the country — and faculty, for that matter — don’t feel free to express their political opinions for fear of social rejection or worse.
We can and should work to combat this, not just for conservative students but for progressive students as well. All students need to learn how to freely exchange ideas and cope with situations that make them uncomfortable.
Encouragingly, some nonprofit organizations are leading efforts to preserve and elevate free speech. Examples include the Steamboat Institute, which runs a Campus Liberty Tour, sponsoring debates on college campuses; the Bipartisan Policy Center, which directs a Campus Free Expression project; and the Institute for Citizens and Scholars, which recruited 13 universities to sign on its Campus Call for Free Expression Initiative.
Two universities near to my heart have also taken interesting steps to address the problem.
UNC-Chapel Hill has started a Program for Public Discourse, which aims to “support a culture of robust public argument through curricular and extra-curricular engagement.” This program’s success, like that of our universities in general, will depend on its ability to avoid capture by one political perspective so that it remains open to all perspectives.
And the University of Colorado Boulder established in 2013 a position for a visiting scholar in conservative thought. At first, this reeked of tokenism and affirmative action to me, but I’ve come to appreciate it and wish that other universities would replicate it. Students need access to an expert — a professor — who can serve as a balance against the prevailing political messages on campus. It may be sadly laughable to only have one openly conservative professor on a college campus, but one is decidedly better than zero.
In these efforts to level the playing field or defend free expression, we should all be careful not to shield conservative students from civil, intellectual challenges to their point of view. (Although, to be clear, everyone deserves physical safety, and personal attacks should not be tolerated.) We should do better by progressive students as well by ensuring that they too have to wrestle with their core beliefs and do the critical thinking that only open debate can provide.
During my time at UNC, I learned what psychology experts call “antifragility.” This was painful, but ultimately I left college feeling advantaged compared to my liberal peers. I knew what I believed, why, and how to defend my perspective. Actually, I’ve made a living doing it. So, for this, I owe my alma mater a debt of gratitude.
Fortunately, more and more people are coming to see the value of anti-fragility and the role that free speech and the open exchange of ideas can play in it. There’s no doubt that safe spaces, trigger warnings, and other limitations on free speech are doing a disservice to college students, particularly left-leaning students, by robbing them of the tools we all need to cope with ideas that make us uncomfortable. Free speech is important not just to civil discourse but to our mental health.
The efforts (by universities and other actors) to improve campus free speech will only work if or when the culture shifts. Conservative students shouldn’t feel ashamed to express their views on campus. But anyone who works to censor, silence, or shut down free expression should feel ashamed.
Only when this shift happens will we see real progress in reclaiming the campus culture. No matter our politics, we all have a stake in this and should work to make it happen.