From Berkeley to Middlebury, as well as a few places in between, higher education has recently experienced a rash of speech disruptions and disinvitations. While these events generate widespread media attention, they do not actually occur that frequently. What is far more typical is avoidance of campus-sponsored occasions where controversial public policies are debated.

A team of graduate students and I have just completed research on the topics and participants in on-campus debates or forums with divergent viewpoints in 24 policy areas. The issues cover everything from more abstract subjects such as constitutional government, federalism and separation of powers to more specific hot button subjects such as policies about guns, immigration, and abortion. While the focus was on national issues, local policies that were the subject of campus forums with divergent viewpoint were also included.

Using a stratified sample of U.S. News and World Report’s “top” institutions in seven categories, we examined the 2014 and 2015 campus calendars of 90 campuses. Except for institutions possessing high-status research centers or law schools, sponsoring debates or forums with different perspectives is not a priority in higher education. Many policy issues debated everywhere else in the American society are not debated or only rarely in campus public events. Almost all undergraduates can vote, but few are exposed to diverse viewpoints about the major policies which should inform their franchise.

Earlier researchers without access to campus calendars came to similar conclusions. Andrea Leskes, former executive of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, linked public dissatisfaction with the state of American politics with the failure of higher education to teach the skills and appreciation for civil discourse. Leskes quoted Susan Herbst that creating a culture of argument, and “the thick skin that goes along with it, are long-term projects that serve democracy well.” However, Leskes concluded (p. 9) that “Examples of civil discourse in general education or taught coherently across the curriculum, across the institution, or across a state system are difficult to find.”

In their book, Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities, Jeremy Mayers, Bruce L.R. Smith and A. Lee Fritschler came to the same result.

American universities are rarely hospitable to lively discussions of issues of public importance. They largely shun serious political debate, all but ignore what used to be called civics, and take little interest in educating students to be effective citizens.

Since almost all higher education institutions affirm a mission to train engaged citizens, what accounts for such limited planned campus policy discourse? Our research suggests several theories:

  1. Academic management has become more corporate and seeks to avoid controversy.
  2. Despite the proliferation of campus administrators, no one is responsible for seeing that a well-balanced political discourse exists.
  3. Campus cultures vigorously promote attractive student living, recreational activities, and career preparation with little organized focus on informed citizenship. An ethos emphasizing tolerance and inclusion for all, often fears disturbing ideas that might offend any group.
  4. Faculty reward structures do not incentivize them to organize or participate in policy debates.
  5. Professors, in fields most concerned with policy issues, are increasingly politically and ideologically homogeneous and may not see the need for their views to be debated.

While particular courses may analyze the policy process or even a particular policy issue, in this era of heavy STEM or vocational outcome focus, very few students may take them.  A study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that only 18 percent of a sample of 1,098 public and private colleges and universities required a course in American history or government and only 3 percent in economics.

Lectures open to all on policy subjects may occur on some campuses, but the audiences are often siloed and undergraduates may not have enough information or courage to ask challenging questions. Hearing different viewpoints simultaneously can develop different and intellectually necessary skills.  Professor of Journalism Marie K. Shanahan has written:

Young people are unlikely to learn how to engage in civil public discourse from their social media interactions. If civility requires emotional security, then students have to practice. And college educators like me need to do a better job embracing the critical role of debate facilitator and debate moderator.

Lectures by professors and campus protests rightly focus attention on important topics but both are inherently one-sided. College students also need thoughtful opportunities to participate in structured debates outside their filter bubbles, so they practice listening to and arguing dissenting points of view.

Lectures by professors and campus protests rightly focus attention on important topics but both are inherently one-sided. College students also need thoughtful opportunities to participate in structured debates outside their filter bubbles, so they practice listening to and arguing dissenting points of view.

Reporting on our research to the Policy History conference (Nashville) and the American Political Science Association conference (Philadelphia), I asked audiences whether any faculty group or administrative office was responsible to see that there were open campus discussions of a variety of public policies from diverse viewpoints. No hands went up. Next, I asked how faculty or outside stakeholders would go about trying to discover whether such debates or forums had taken place on their campus in recent years.  Again there was silence. About twenty percent of the campuses we wished to include in our sample maintained no accessible calendars and others required repeated inquiries to fill out incomplete entries.

Perhaps feeling a bit impish, I asked how anyone would find out how their campus athletic teams had fared in recent years. This time most hands went up. From power five universities to very small liberal arts colleges, there are now well-developed athletic web pages with biographies of coaches and players, scores, statistics, attendance figures and often videos over several years, even decades. Check YouTube for what is available to the public about activities on your campus. The failure to create accessible and comparable records for the intellectual history of a campus is not a matter of technology or cost, but of institutional priorities.

While as I have explained in the related Winter 2107 Academic Questions article now online, the responsibility to hold campuses responsible for providing a variety of campus events focused on public policy that feature divergent viewpoints can be taken up by legislators, trustees, administrators, student government and even families, but surely faculty ought to bear the primary responsibility. If it is important that students majoring in a variety of subjects have access to campus wide events focusing on health policy or Southeast Asian foreign policy, for example, then some faculty body should see that it happens.

Faculty, also ought to be responsible for seeing that the major policy perspectives in public discourse are represented in debates or forums. Too frequently when the subject touches race, gender or immigration only one viewpoint is represented, although multiple speakers are on a panel. Faculty should also discourage policy-related panels that are just composed of friends or colleagues of the organizer and may not be intended to explore the difficult dimensions of a subject. Too often, when we inquired of campus sponsors of multi-speaker public policy forums whether divergent viewpoints were represented, the sponsors did not appear to have thought about the question or would not answer.

Given the increasing levels of mistrust in the public about the way academic institutions handle free speech issues and reflect intellectual diversity, it is the faculty’s self-interest to be able to demonstrate that all students are exposed to different viewpoints on major policy issues. Even more important, given the extreme political polarization in our country now, it is essential that higher education show the value of civil, well-informed policy debates and forums.

Citation: George La Noue. “Promoting a Campus Culture of Policy Debates.” Academic Questions 30: 476-483

Editor’s note: The author wishes to thank and acknowledge the project’s student research team (Kamilla Keldiyarova, UMBC School of Public Policy MPS student, (liberal arts colleges); David Song, Stanford University School of Education, Ph.D. student (top private and public universities); Matthew Speake, University of Baltimore Law School J.D. student (regional public and private universities); and Adam Shulman, UMBC School of Public Policy, Ph.D. student (religious universities).

May 2019 update: Dr. La Noue has has expanded the subject of this research summary into a full book, Silenced Stages: The Loss of Academic Freedom and Campus Policy Debates.