By: Robert McClure Thursday, 09 May 2019 5:06PM
In what may prove to be the most significant action by any state’s higher education leaders in more than a decade, the presidents of all 12 state universities in Florida recently released a joint statement affirming their commitment to “full and open discourse and the robust exchange of ideas and perspectives on our respective campuses.”
The Florida Statement on campus free expression, which was also signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and State University System Chancellor Marshall Criser, contains little that would have been considered controversial — or even newsworthy — a generation or two ago. Yet, the document is very significant in our day for two reasons.
First, the campus climate at many colleges has changed markedly in recent years. More and more institutions have actively adopted illiberal campus policies, such as speech codes and restricted-speech zones. And many “elite” schools have passively tolerated speech-bullying behavior on the part of student activists (such as disinviting speakers and shouting down those with whom they disagree).
In view of this campus climate change, it is refreshing — and noteworthy — to see a group of university presidents, from one of the most diverse states in the Union, join together to reassert that one of the main purposes of higher education is “to provide a learning environment where divergent ideas, opinions and philosophies, new and old, can be rigorously debated and critically evaluated.”
Indeed, to its credit, The Florida Statement on campus free expression argues that the very process of debating divergent ideas and challenging others’ opinions helps students develop intellectual skills and fosters the kind of “personal and scholarly growth” that is central to a university’s mission. A comment from Florida State University President, John Thrasher, summed up this view succinctly when he said, “Universities do not exist to make ideas safe for students, but rather to make students safe for ideas.”
Second, The Florida Statement on campus free expression represents a very useful marketing tool for the state’s universities. At a time when a growing number of Americans are questioning the high cost (and declining value) of higher education, The Florida Statement signals that at least one state’s education leaders are interested in responding to the pent-up demand for open inquiry, divergent thought, and the rigorous testing of ideas.
In this regard, The Florida Statement is consistent with an observation made a year or so ago in a major report issued by my organization, The James Madison Institute (JMI).
“Even though it may seem counter-intuitive, all of this campus craziness represents an opportunity for our state,” our JMI report stated. “For if the Florida higher education system were to become a haven for free expression and viewpoint diversity — and to become known as such — our universities would be very well positioned to meet the growing demand for intellectually-serious academic study at an affordable cost.”
By becoming the first state in the country to have all of its major universities adopt a statement affirming its commitment to free expression, Florida has signaled that it wishes to gain a comparative advantage in the higher education marketplace as a national leader in this area. In essence, The Florida Statement on campus free expression serves an invitation to students around the country — and around the world — that if you want to learn in an intellectually-serious environment that respects viewpoint diversity and upholds free speech, come to Florida.
That is apt to be a very good marketing message — and marketing strategy — especially for a state like Florida, where the schools often suffer from the “systemic bias” against young institutions in the U.S. News & World Report college rankings. As our JMI report noted, nearly 25 percent of the formula U.S. News uses to rank colleges is devoted to “academic reputation” (a factor impervious to short-term positive change). Another 12.5 percent is devoted to admissions “selectivity” (a metric largely driven by academic reputation). And 15 percent is devoted to financial resources and alumni giving (factors which tend to favor older schools with longstanding familial and home-state ties).
In such a ranking system, it’s hard for a school like the University of Central Florida (which is younger than Barack Obama) to compete with the hallowed reputation of say, the College of William & Mary (which counts Thomas Jefferson among its graduates).
“The best way for Florida to become a national leader in higher education,” our JMI report argued, “is for our youngish system to go thoroughly ‘old school’ (in the best sense of the word) by boldly reaffirming the pursuit of truth as education’s primary mission — and by fostering the diversity of thought and free expression that this pursuit requires.”
Judging by The Florida Statement on campus free expression, Florida’s leaders have decided to do just that. Let’s hope the leaders of other states soon join them.