by Connor Murnane originally published by FIRE October 21, 2021
As campuses grow more hostile to free expression, it may be up to alumni to tip the scales in favor of individual rights. Long after alumni leave campus, they remain some of higher education’s most powerful constituents. Now, with help from FIRE and the newly launched Alumni Free Speech Alliance, they are beginning to rise up on behalf of free speech.
The AFSA, composed of five independent alumni groups from top institutions, seeks to “encourage the creation of alumni free speech groups for other colleges and universities,” provide the “tools to help new alumni groups organize,” and support “free speech and academic freedom.”
Long after alumni leave campus, they remain some of higher education’s most powerful constituents.
The founding member groups of the AFSA hail from Princeton University (Princetonians for Free Speech), Cornell University (Cornell Free Speech Alliance), University of Virginia (Jefferson Council), Washington and Lee University (Generals Redoubt), and Davidson College (Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought & Discourse). These groups will pool resources and mentor emerging alumni groups at other schools as they seek to establish themselves.
FIRE has been working with AFSA and many of the member groups over the past few months and is proud to partner with them to give alumni a real, independent voice for free speech on their campuses.
American universities routinely rely on their graduates for everything from word-of-mouth endorsements to checks that support the endowment. And yet even with confidence in higher education falling, year after year, alumni have been more than willing to give back. A Council for Advancement and Support of Education report published in 2020 found that alumni contributed more than $11 billion to their alma maters in 2019. Alumni generosity not only helps keep colleges afloat, but also influences universities’ placement in the U.S. News and World Report’s annual college rankings — an important metric for university administrators and incoming students. Alumni have the opportunity to leverage this influence to ensure their schools uphold their obligations to the highest principles of free speech and academic freedom.
The fight to stem the tide of illiberalism on campus must be fought at every level. As the AFSA notes, “opponents of free speech and academic freedom are well-organized.” More than that — they’re institutionalized. It is time for the alumni proponents of free speech to organize as well and begin demanding the few, simple solutions that will build a culture of free expression on campus:
Demand your institution live up to its First Amendment obligations or commitments to free expression. Insist your institution’s administration review campus policies and reform policies that restrict speech in ways that satisfy various campus missions while also respecting the individual rights of students and faculty.
Advocate for the adoption of the Chicago Statement on Freedom of Expression. When students see the leaders of their schools publicly pledge to protect free expression, they feel more secure to speak their minds. That also sets an important expectation for prospective students: Come to campus ready to participate in a free exchange of ideas.
Insist your alma mater instills values of free expression from day one. It is clear that colleges cannot expect students to arrive on campus with knowledge about the importance of free speech and academic freedom, and this is leading to a profound mismatch between some students’ expectations and the reality of a liberal education. FIRE’s Freshmen Orientation Program consists of a series of modules that provide colleges with the materials necessary to teach the importance of free speech and academic freedom, which they may freely use and adapt to their own needs.
Insist your alma mater collect serious data on campus censorship and openness toward free expression. Every institution of higher education should remain vigilant about potential threats to free speech and gather information about its campus climate instead of simply claiming, “Other schools are like that, but not mine!” A transparent survey of a large proportion of the campus community can provide vital information that would allow administrators to make informed decisions. If done annually, it could be used to judge yearly progress toward a free and open campus climate.
Stop writing blank checks. Alumni must begin focusing their financial investments in their alma maters toward liberty-oriented initiatives that will benefit the state of free speech on campus. Donations can have a much greater impact on the campus climate if they are earmarked toward scholarships, speaker series, independent academic programs, student groups, or other, non-general fund programs that encourage open dialogue and debate.
How you can help
FIRE stands ready and willing to advise and help any alumni advocate regarding any of the points above. If you’re an alumnus interested in defending free speech and preserving academic freedom at your alma mater, please follow the AFSA and consider signing up for FIRE’s Alumni Network. You’ll receive breaking news curated specifically for your alma mater, including FIRE’s latest legal developments, strategies for activism, and reporting related to free speech and academic freedom.
Consider signing up for FIRE’s Alumni Network.
More importantly, if you want to be part of the solution on your campus, you can let us know, so that we know what campuses might prove fertile ground for an alumni free speech group to grow, and reach out to you when that time comes.
We hope you will join FIRE, AFSA, and alumni across the nation in bringing the fight for free speech home to the colleges and universities that many of us remember fondly — so that today’s students will remember their college years fondly too.