Thank you to Chair Murphy and to all members of the committee for being here, and for inviting me to speak on this important topic. I’ll start with a little bit of background of who I am, and why I care so much about freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and equity in our public discourse, and at our public institutions.
I’ve been a professor in the Masters of Public Administration program at UW Oshkosh since 2013. I teach courses in Public and Nonprofit Budgeting, Public Private Partnerships, Nonprofit Management, Research Methods, and a few other areas. In 2021 I, along with my colleague Dr. Samantha Larson, founded the Whitburn Center for Governance and Policy Research. Our mission at the Whitburn Center is to conduct nonpartisan, practical, applied research focused on evaluating and improving governance, professional management, and public policy in Wisconsin and beyond. Our mission in the masters of public administration program is to prepare students for a career in public service, usually in state and local government.
I frequently tell my students that they will be facing a challenging situation when working in government. Resources are finite, needs are infinite, and values are contested. In public service you must confront every situation as it exists, not as you hope it exists.
This brings me to the topic I was asked to speak on today. As President Rothman told Wisconsin Public Radio the other day, our university is a microcosm of the state. Our students are black, brown, white, rural, urban, straight, lgbtq, liberal, conservative and everything in between. Many are first generation, many are not. They study business, social science, nursing, etc.
When we are at our best, UWO is a dynamic brew of diverse people and thought, a place where students can be who they are, discuss challenging topics, disagree, and grow. There is a saying that as goes Milwaukee goes the state…but I’m more fond of saying as goes our regional comprehensive universities goes the state. The reality is UWO, and the other regional comprehensive universities in the UW system, educate the majority of our resident students.
To educate them effectively, and for our public universities to more broadly embody the Wisconsin idea, we need a climate that embraces free speech and expression. If a student is spending time worrying about whether to share their thoughts in the classroom, they are sacrificing time and energy that should go into learning. If a student feels censored or unwelcome in the classroom, their fellow students lose the chance to learn from them, to engage with them in a constructive manner. On a macro-level, a climate that limits freedom of expression and speech fails to prepare students for their post-college life.
I do want to bring up what I think is the elephant in the room around the topics of free speech, expression, and equity. We are living in a divided time where culture wars dominate the public discourse. We doom scroll through Twitter looking for that post that validates our position, or for that post that allows us to indulge in self-riotous noble outrage. But Twitter is not reality.
Too often people hear the term free speech, and it is interpreted as code for a conservative attack on public institutions. Frankly, I have colleagues that aren’t too happy I’m speaking on this topic today. Let’s flip the coin. Too often people hear the term social equity, and it is interpreted as code for racial quotas, or indoctrination by left-wing professors who’ve never had a real job.
But what are we really talking about when we speak of equity and freedom of speech and expression? I see people of different ideological persuasions talking past one another in pursuit of a very similar thing: Ensuring that one’s personal background and belief system is not a barrier to learning or knowledge generation. After all, a public university that only works for some, or only welcomes some people and viewpoints, is a public university that doesn’t work.
Turning to the free speech survey, I was able to attend the launch, and able to spend some time working through the results. There is a lot to digest in there, and while we can argue about intent and stop there, that isn’t constructive. So what can those survey results tell us?
On the positive side, it is encouraging that UWO students seem to have a better understanding of their 1st amendment rights than some of their peers at other institutions. It is also encouraging that only 9% of system students agree that professors discourage students from exploring a wide variety of viewpoints often or extremely often. The nuanced results make it pretty clear there is no widespread indoctrination of students going on. That is not surprising to me after nine years in the UW system, but important to point out nonetheless.
But, there are areas of concern, two data points really stuck out to me. The first is that only 31% of respondents are very or extremely interested in discussing controversial topics. I think about the practical impact of almost 70 percent of any population avoiding discussion of controversial topics in a democratic society. Self-governing is all about engagement, and right now, too many students are not engaging in public discourse.
It is easy to understand why. Engagement can bring consequences, consequences that are no fun. I mentioned that some of my colleagues weren’t happy with me appearing here today, that was hard for me, and I am a 41 one year old tenured professor, with all the privileges that entails, with 15+ years of engagement in public life. It is tough to imagine how hard it must be to put yourself out there as a college student finding your way in the world.
Digging deeper into the results, it is the self-identified very and somewhat liberal, and then the very conservative students, who are most likely to engage on controversial topics. In other words, it is the edges driving the discourse around controversial topics. I think we all feel this when reading the news or watching the talking heads on Sunday morning, but it is nonetheless striking to see the evidence right in here in Wisconsin.
To be clear, it is ok to be an outlier, ideology is a spectrum, and part of living in an open society is a right to exist where you want on that spectrum. But when the edges are the loudest and/or only voices, it is the majority who are not heard; the moderate voices that are devalued. How can the center hold when it is not engaging in the public conversation? How do we, those of us who believe in the American experiment, preserve our free society, if so many young folks choose to tune out, or feel forced to tune out?
The second data point that caught my attention is that only 12% of students report they are very or extremely interested in having their views challenged. I can’t figure out if this is a result, or a cause, of our nation’s ideological divisions, but I know it is a problem. Learning requires having your views challenged. It requires being vulnerable, being open to being wrong. This is true for students, for professors, and for policymakers.
A dynamic learning environment also requires a culture where people are able to disagree with someone while still recognizing the legitimacy of their views, and the pureness of their intent in expressing them. I have memories as a kid of my parents passionately arguing about Dukakis and Bush at the dinner table. They didn’t change each others’ minds, and it was ok. I was lucky to have that modeled behavior in my home, and I think about it a lot. Mutual respect does not have to be that complicated. The inherent value of free speech and expression on a college campus, and in a free society, doesn’t need to be controversial when taken at face value.
Yes, free speech can be uncomfortable. I am scheduled to teach a course on free speech and expression in the Fall, and we are going to read Philippa Strum’s “When the Nazis Came to Skokie,” which is about as uncomfortable a test of one’s commitment to an open society as there can be. But it is ok to uncomfortable. We often learn when we are uncomfortable. Part of the price of living in a free democratic society is being exposed to things with which we disagree.
This is not new, while prepping for today I came across the archives of the UW Oshkosh Intellectual Freedom Committee from 1965. I came across a video of a roundtable discussion in the early 1990s on the problems with speech codes. The struggle to create a university where freedom of expression is celebrated, and where people of all walks of life feel they belong, is ongoing. And that is good. It matters. Where better than a public university to have these discussions?
So, what can we do, here on campus, and across our state, to demonstrate and grow our commitment to free speech, free expression, and equity? To me, it is all about engagement. Let’s take the results of the freedom of speech survey seriously. Were the questions a bit clumsy? Yes. Was the response rate low, sure, and we know the process had its very public challenges. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. I’ve published a good number of peer-reviewed journal articles and I can assure you each one has its flaws. Perfect isn’t the goal, progress is.
Engagement means rejecting a debate based on caricatures. If one group premises their opinions on the image of a conservative speaker being shouted down by angry students and faculty, and another group dismisses calls for free speech as a trojan horse for ending tenure and dismantling shared governance, we will forever be talking past one another. Serious people can approach this core value of a democratic society in a serious and constructive way. If we do not, we will cede the public discussion to the caricatures, and all of us will lose.
Engagement means taking the Wisconsin Idea seriously. Research Centers like the Whitburn Center, or UWO’s Center for Civic and Community Engagement, build connections between our university community and the state at-large. If we are to prepare our students for the world they will face, we need to engage with that world, challenge our own thinking, and ensure that our commitment to diversity, demographic and intellectual, is true, known, and celebrated.
Engagement means telling our story as researchers and teachers. My discipline is inherently outward facing, and premised on the ideals of equity and freedom, so it is really easy for me teach a course on free speech and expression. But I know many other courses in many other disciplines deal with the 1st amendment, with questions of democracy, and with freedom of expression. We need to tell that story, to elevate the quality of the public discussion around these issues that are core to student learning, to our success as a university, and to our future as a state.
To specifically answer the question that was posed to me when I was invited to this hearing:
“How does the lack of free speech and intellectual diversity on college campuses affect the quality of higher education?”
Well, in those spaces where there is a lack of free speech and intellectual diversity, student learning and faculty research suffer. It is imperative that we as a university community lean into the discussion of free speech and diversity, as a true partner with policymakers who share the common goal of a dynamic, diverse, welcoming, and impactful UW system. For me that means teaching a course on free speech, accepting your kind invitation to speak today, and building connections between the university and those outside of it.
Others will engage in ways most appropriate to their discipline and position. The important thing is that we do engage as faculty, even when we disagree, that we encourage our students to find their voice in a free and open society, that we share our experiences and beliefs, and listen to what others share with us.
And ultimately my hope, no matter how naïve it sounds, is that we all embrace the humility, civility, and openness that allows us to pursue the common good for our diverse students, and state.
I thank you again for the opportunity to speak and I am happy to answer any questions.