State, Education Leaders Meet at UVA To Discuss Free Speech on Campuses

November 29, 2023 By Mike Mather, Mike Mather,

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and nearly every college and university president in the commonwealth gathered Tuesday at the University of Virginia to share ideas on how to support free speech on campuses, even when the ideas and words are controversial or a challenge to mainstream beliefs. 

The governor’s office convened the meeting and UVA agreed to host.

“Free and open inquiry is how knowledge is produced,” UVA President Jim Ryan told the crowd in the Newcomb Hall Ballroom as part of his welcome address. “The commitment to free speech is easy in theory, but hard in practice. It is only worthwhile when it is hard.”

The question of whether students are free to speak their minds on campuses has been an undercurrent in national news reporting and has been exacerbated by deep political divides, some of the speakers said. The topic has gained fresh attention since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s retaliatory attacks on Gaza. 

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“Harassment and hostility are not debate,” guest speaker Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. secretary of education who is the president and CEO of the Bipartisan Policy Center, said. 

The audience in Newcomb Hall included the presidents of every public college and university in Virginia and 17 of the 23 private institutions. The idea for the Higher Education Summit on Free Speech and Intellectual Diversity was to gather college leaders and discuss ways they could better support free speech on their campuses, even when a speaker or topic is offensive to the majority of the students or faculty. 

“First, when it comes to freedom of expression, we have to create an environment that protects the ability to challenge conventional thinking,” Youngkin said in his keynote address. “Challenging beliefs and fostering an environment for these debates is exactly why we all exist.”

Jim Ryan at the panel discussion
UVA President Jim Ryan listens to a panel discussion on how colleges and universities can foster more tolerance on campuses for different speakers and ideas. (Photo by Matt Riley, University Communications)

The governor noted that when former Vice President Mike Pence was invited to speak on Grounds on April 12, 2022, there were calls to cancel the visit. But, he said, UVA leadership pushed back. 

“And the administration of the University of Virginia stood up for that fact that we have to have diverging views and therefore must welcome diverging views,” Youngkin said. “And in fact, President Ryan and Provost Ian Baucom wrote in the student newspaper that it is a sign that free expression is alive and well that we have speakers people may disagree with.”

During the daylong summit, college and university leaders listened to panelists and speakers, and met in smaller groups to develop plans to more fully support free speech and viewpoint diversity on their campuses. The drafts of those plans will be sent to the state’s secretary of education by March 1. 

Melody Barnes participates in the panel discussion
Melody Barnes, executive director of UVA’s Karsh Institute of Democracy, moderates a panel of college presidents that shared ideas on how to bolster civility in campus debates. (Photo by Matt Riley, University Communications)

“I’m excited to have the opportunity to review some of these when they’re finalized next year,” Youngkin said. “But I am just inspired by the work that you are doing.”

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Mike Mather

Managing Editor University Communications