Last month, President Trump announced that his executive order would spell dire consequences for higher ed institutions curtailing free speech on campus—specifically, they would lose access to federal research funding. (To be clear, the executive order does not apply to federal student aid.)
But as many political commentators and higher ed administrators aptly observed, it’s unclear how federal agencies would actually carry out this threat. The order tells federal agencies to make sure colleges and universities follow existing regulations: Public institutions must comply with the First Amendment and private institutions must comply with their own institutional standards. What the order does not say is how those agencies would actually identify which colleges and universities are violating free speech policies and how they would then justify and implement the funding cuts. So, for many the reaction has been to stick with the status quo.
However, the takeaway from the executive order is hardly to carry on as-is. The order has turbocharged the debate on campus free speech and breathed new life into media and watchdog efforts to pick up the next big story on restricted speech. Even if federal agencies have no clear direction on how to cut research funding to higher ed institutions, even perceived threats to free speech on campus are much more likely to make it into the following day’s headlines.
Questions to evaluate your free speech and climate flashpoint policy
The executive order provides new urgency to revisit your institution’s protocol on free speech and climate flashpoints (i.e., climate-related incidents at the institution, in the community, or in media that impact your campus) and to implement any overdue changes.
Below, our team has assembled a list of primer questions to help you assess whether your free speech policy prepares you and your team to address campus climate issues.
- What is your institutional free speech policy and when was it last reviewed?
- How do you currently stay up-to-date on the latest flashpoint risk areas?
- What processes are in place to help stakeholders learn about, recognize, and elevate risks?
- What personnel is dedicated to addressing campus climate issues?
- What is the structure of your proactive response framework to address future incidents on campus?
- To what extent does your institution invest in initiatives to preemptively address potential flashpoints?