Oxford Conclave 2016

Managing Freedom Of Expression: Challenges for College and University Leaders

The 12th Oxford Conclave on Global Higher Education will focus on the leadership challenges arising from freedom of expression within academic communities. Presidents and senior academic administrators often are arbiters of conflicts involving this complex but important principle.

Freedom of expression is foundational to the academic enterprise where knowledge is expanded by exploring, testing and debating ideas in the classroom and laboratory, as well as in the coffee shop and residence hall. Yet the exercise of this freedom inevitably prompts questions about professional responsibility and how, or whether, academic communities might establish necessary limits. These issues came to the fore at many institutions in the last academic year:

  • The U.S. House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee held a hearing March 2 to ask if tax-exempt colleges and universities are suppressing the free exchange of ideas on campus. Topics included students’ rights to demonstrate or support political candidates; the role of faculty in political activism; and whether the tax-exempt status of the institution has any bearing on students’ free speech.
  • A Newsweek article in May was headlined, “The Battle Against ‘Hate Speech’ on College Campuses Gives Rise to a Generation That Hates Speech.”
  • The British publication Spiked published its second annual “Free Speech University Rankings” under the headline, “The Epidemic of Campus Censorship.”
  • In March the AAUP issued a statement questioning whether Title IX compromises freedom of expression by “too broadly” defining sexual harassment.
  • Headlines in the U.S. focused on faculty members removed from their positions at several institutions because of controversial statements on blogs or social media.
  • 2015–16 controversies making news also included attempts to alter the content of artistic productions and exhibitions; demands to rename campus facilities; calls to remove symbols deemed offensive by some; protests disrupting speakers and programs; rescinded invitations to commencement speakers and other lecturers; and the growing number of textbooks and course syllabi with “trigger warnings” alerting students to content that may be disturbing.

The Conclave also will include discussions of the particular challenges encountered in some international contexts where academic freedoms are far more limited.  The program will offer separate tracks for presidents and senior academic officers, so each president is encouraged to bring a provost or dean.  A special track for presidents’ spouses is also planned.