American higher education has long been marked by its openness — openness to people of different backgrounds bringing forward different ideas, backed by evidence. This openness inevitably yields a natural tension between new ideas and established orthodoxies. Healthy societies harness this tension because doing so can drive learning, creativity, and innovation not just for students, but for the whole of society. Unhealthy societies fear and suppress it, violently if necessary. Scholars at Risk’s core work is protecting scholars, students, and other thinkers from such violence.
It is no secret that the openness of U.S. campuses has been strained lately. Some have become culture war battlegrounds over external speakers (on the left and right), banners, publications, and course curricula. Actors inside and outside the community look to score points on social media, and perhaps get picked up by partisan print, cable, and broadcast media (followed quickly by politicians and their fundraisers).
We shouldn’t overstate the situation, however. Most campuses still manage to have meaningful discourse with many in their community much of the time. Nevertheless, a campus in the midst of a culture war incident can seem like two nations fighting over a single territory. To preserve our culture of openness on campus, university and college leaders should emphasize academic freedom and formalize responsibility for promoting it on their campuses.
And they should talk more about the Taliban.
Across the globe, openness under threat
We don’t have to search hard to observe the worst-case consequences of when academic freedom is suppressed.
At this moment, university students, graduates, teachers, and researchers across Afghanistan, especially women and religious minorities, are in fear for their lives. For the better part of 20 years, they embraced openness and tolerance. They didn’t wear a uniform or get a U.S. government paycheck, but they fought just the same for a new, pluralist, democratic, forward-looking, knowledge-based Afghanistan. They put their lives on the line for openness and tolerance. But these are not the values of the Taliban. So their lives are now at risk.
Of course, Afghanistan is not the only place where ideologies of intolerance and close-mindedness are ascendant. China is cracking down on scholars and students in Hong Kong for having the courage to peacefully protest, and sanctioning U.S. and European researchers for documenting mass internments of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities. Russia declared U.S.-based Bard College, a liberal arts institution with a nearly 25-year partnership with St. Petersburg State University, an “undesirable” organization, effectively threatening fines or prison sentences of up to six years for anyone associated with it. Notwithstanding favorable impressions of the likes of Tucker Carlson or Rod Dreher, Hungary’s Victor Orban has similarly outlawed gender studies and other disciplines and forced the Central European University, the most open and tolerant institution in the region, into exile.
Openness at risk at home
What does this violence have to do with culture wars on American campuses?
Sadly, the ideology of state suppression of disfavored ideas is on the rise in the United States as well. In the last year, state legislators steeped in culture wars have proposed laws in at least seven states banning the teaching of specified, disfavored ideas. As in China, Russia, and Hungary, these bills are described as necessary to defend national unity and coherence from “foreign,” “divisive,” or “dangerous” ideas. Nonsense. They are a rejection of openness and a brute exercise of state power aimed at winning the battle of ideas by force.
What can American campuses do about threats at home and abroad?
Preserving openness: why we must talk about the Taliban
First, we must talk more about academic freedom, which promotes openness and tolerance on campus. The philosopher Michael Polanyi noted in his 1947 essay The Foundations of Academic Freedom that academic freedom “can only exist in a free society.” The inverse is also true: a free society cannot exist without academic freedom. As Polanyi noted, “[T]he principles underlying [academic freedom] are the same as those on which the most essential liberties of society as a whole are founded.”
University and college leaders should talk more about what academic freedom is, and why it matters not just to scholars and students, but to society. They should talk about the threat of state suppression of ideas, no matter how unpopular, whether those threats exist in Afghanistan, China, Russia, and Hungary, or in Arizona, Iowa, and Florida.
Contextualizing local free speech- and academic freedom-related disputes within the wider global context can help to open space for discussion and make it easier to find common ground. One way is to host formerly at-risk scholars or students on campus, whether through Scholars at Risk or one of our partner programs. This might include hosting a lecture or classroom visit through Scholars at Risk’s Speaker Series, or a one-year academic visit by a threatened scholar from Afghanistan, China, or elsewhere.
University and college leaders should also move beyond talk and formalize responsibility for academic freedom on their campuses. This could be in the form of an ombudsperson, chief academic freedom officer, or representative committee. Whatever vehicle, it should have clear authority and transparent, and flexible procedures, be broadly representative of all stakeholders, and have responsibility to affirmatively promote academic freedom, not merely to respond to incidents after-the-fact.
University leaders should consider orientation sessions on academic freedom like Scholars at Risk’s online course Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters for all new trustees, leaders, faculty, students, and staff. These sessions discuss the meaning and importance of academic freedom to the institution, and expectations for contributing to its promotion and defense. They would help to build a vocabulary and institutional culture that might be drawn upon when needed to defuse the next culture war flare-up.
Similarly, institutions could offer incentives to faculty who develop courses and projects for the community that promote academic freedom, openness, and tolerance, like Scholars at Risk’s Student Advocacy Seminars, Free to Think podcast, or Lines, Line-drawing and Consequences webinar series. Schools also should consider incentives for student groups that make special efforts to respect openness and tolerance in their invitations to speakers and events.
Tensions over speech and ideas on U.S. campuses are inevitable. When they result from good faith efforts to engage with new ideas, they also can be healthy. Everyone has a role to play in ending the culture wars on campus. A good place to start might be talking more about academic freedom, where it does not exist, and what we can all do about it.
Robert Quinn is the founding executive director of Scholars at Risk and host of the Free to Think podcast. All views are the author’s alone. Scholars at Risk (SAR) is an international network of over 550 higher education institutions in 40 countries dedicated to defending freedom to think, question and share ideas. Information on membership, activities and donating to SAR is available at https://www.scholarsatrisk.org.
This viewpoint is part of an ongoing series, Driving Discovery. In this series we amplify the voices of a diverse group of scholars, nonprofit leaders, and advocates who offer unique perspectives on how openness drives human progress.