Protecting Free Speech: A Davidson College Case Study
January 31, 2022 | Emily Burden Rees
The current wave of alumni taking action to protect free expression at their alma maters is a trend to watch in 2022. Alarmed at restrictions on free speech and open discourse that have proliferated on campus in recent years, alumni from across the country are joining the Alumni Free Speech Alliance, an umbrella organization uniting groups “that have a focus on supporting free speech, academic freedom, and viewpoint diversity at their colleges and universities.”
Alumni of Davidson College in North Carolina have successfully formed an advocacy group that is making a powerful difference to protect the free speech rights of students and faculty. A group of concerned alumni created Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse (DFTD) in 2018 to urge the college’s administration to ensure ideological balance in the classroom and to promote lively and fearless debate on campus.
In a recent article, John Craig, class of 1966, explains why he founded DFTD along with fellow alumni. “In 2018, we decided to challenge the status quo at Davidson College, because we knew that the stakes were so high. We had witnessed, experienced, and documented free speech suppression on campus, followed the development of a monoculture that countenances little viewpoint diversity, and observed declining academic standards over the last decade.” Mr. Craig served on the college’s Alumni Council for eight years. When he questioned the “overwhelmingly predominant liberal orthodoxy” at council meetings, his concerns were quickly dismissed. He felt that alumni must speak up to reverse these troubling trends on campus.
In 2021, DFTD commissioned the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) to survey Davidson College students, revealing that 71% of students have felt that they could not express their opinion on a particular subject because of how students, a professor, or the administration would respond. In a separate survey, ACTA polled major donors to Davidson College. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said that they are “somewhat” (24%) or “very” (35%) dissatisfied with the direction that Davidson College has taken “over the last decade.” Eighty-one percent of donors described the campus culture at Davidson as “liberal” or “left of center,” compared to 2% who described it as “conservative” or “right of center.”
Emily Koons Jae, director of the Fund for Academic Renewal, is also an alumna of Davidson College. In an article for Philanthropy Daily, she shares how DFTD’s work has made a difference at the highest level. In November, Davidson President Carol Quillen commissioned a working group of alumni, faculty, and students to draft a statement affirming Davidson’s commitment to free speech and open inquiry. Ms. Jae writes, “I hope that this . . . success serves as a model for other colleges and universities.”
Alumni groups across the country are recognizing their potential influence, both as donors and as dedicated supporters of their alma maters, to reverse the erosion of free speech and open inquiry at their colleges and universities. Together, alumni can help restore the core values that are the lifeblood of American higher education.