New AGB Resource Prepares Higher Education Board Members to Balance Freedom of Speech with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Freedom of Speech and Diversity, Equity, And Inclusion cover

“Upholding the principles of academic inquiry, civil discourse, and free speech is fundamental to college and university missions” – Henry Stoever

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB), the premier organization advocating strategic board leadership in higher education, today released Freedom of Speech and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on Campus: Considerations for Board Members and Chief Executives, a publication providing practical insights into why and how institutional leaders should prioritize freedom of speech as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

Colleges and universities are grappling with conflicts on campus related to a perceived tension between free speech and the advancement of DEI — two pillars of institutional missions. Freedom of speech is not only a fundamental right under the First Amendment but also the foundation of academic freedom. Simultaneously, the ongoing national reckoning on race and culture has called attention to the importance of DEI as a cornerstone of student success, institutional viability, and a more educated citizenry. Some DEI proponents claim that provocateurs abuse institutional commitments to free speech to promote ideas that exclude and marginalize vulnerable populations, which can hinder student success, demoralize campus communities, and present a reputational risk for the institution and higher education.

With an increasingly diverse student population, board members and chief executives should recognize their time-sensitive imperative to contextualize these issues for students while cultivating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive campus environment for faculty, staff, and students. The AGB publication offers practical advice for higher education leaders in anticipating, evaluating, and addressing these issues. Two such recommendations include ensuring that the institution’s freedom of speech and campus climate policies are harmonized and calling on the administration to create response plans before anticipated conflicts break out.

This report comes at a time when students, administrators, lawmakers, and the public are grappling with questions about the nature and limits of free speech and the impacts that it has on social cohesion and individual well-being. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), multiple states have enacted laws to protect free speech rights for students and faculty at state institutions. At the same time, some of the same legislatures passed “divisive concepts” legislation, limiting the kind of conversations and topics of discussion in classrooms. Against this backdrop, students appear to believe that a wide spectrum of speech at college is important, although there is nuance among racial groups. According to a 2022 survey by the Knight Foundation, students of color believe their speech is less protected. White students, on the other hand, report that diversity and inclusion sometimes conflict with their freedom of speech.

While a previous AGB publication focused on key points of consensus regarding the boundaries of free speech, this report goes a step further to help boards face instances where frictions arise between institutional priorities of protecting free speech and advancing DEI.

AGB President and CEO Henry Stoever affirms the need for boards to be prepared to address these issues in a timely and comprehensive manner. “Board members should not wait for a crisis on campus to focus on these issues. Upholding the principles of academic inquiry, civil discourse, and free speech is fundamental to college and university missions, ”he said. “It is also critical for boards to model this behavior for the rest of the campus community. If boards cannot model inclusive behavior and champion free speech, how can they expect others to do so? It is too important for students’ success to ignore. ”

A complimentary e-book version of Freedom of Speech and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion on Campus: Considerations for Board Members and Chief Executives is available for AGB members at AGB.org/Freedomofspeech.

About AGB

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) is the premier membership organization that strengthens higher education governing boards and the strategic roles they serve within their organizations. Through our vast library of resources, educational events, and consulting services, and with 100 years of experience, we empower 40,000 AGB members from more than 2,000 institutions and foundations to navigate complex issues, implement leading practices, streamline operations, and govern with confidence. AGB is the trusted resource for board members, chief executives, and key administrators on higher education governance and leadership.

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