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Words from Waller

January 28, 2022

Dear Bearcats,

Teaching and learning are at the heart of our university mission, and, at their core, driven by communication. Sometimes we are active participants in a seminar-style classroom, sometimes audience members listening to a public speaker, sometimes athletes seeking feedback from a coach. Whether through words or music or visual art, members of our university community challenge, move, and inspire each other as we grow together in our understanding of the world and what it means to be human.

Words can also hurt, though, and demean and bully and mislead. Art can wound and offend, and has been at times co-opted to serve tyranny. It is no wonder that the boundaries between what we can and can’t say, and between what we should and shouldn’t say, are hard fought. And they are questions not just for individuals, but for any group or institution. Where and how do we draw lines between acceptable and unacceptable expressions? How do we allow for robust discussion while ensuring all participants in the conversation feel valued, heard, and seen?

Discussions about freedom of speech and expression are taking place at colleges across the nation and are not unique to Willamette. To better understand the complexity of these issues, I wanted to suggest as reading material some new reports just issued on campus speech.

The first is a brand new survey-based analysis by the Knight Foundation and Ipsos on student attitudes towards free expression and campus speech, the fourth in a series of such reports since 2016 and a companion to a similar report on broader American attitudes. It is a useful summary of broad attitudes, broken down on racial, ethnic, gender, and political lines.

Perhaps it should not be surprising that 84% of college students believe free speech is critical to democracy, though confidence that such rights will be protected have fallen since 2016 and are particularly low among Black students.

On the whole, though, a significant majority continue to believe that it is important that universities allow students to be exposed to all kinds of speech, including speech they believe is offensive or biased, except for the use of racial slurs to describe others. Only a quarter of students believe speakers should be disinvited from campus if some group would find their message offensive, and most do not support campus speech codes.

For more detail, I encourage you to dig into the full report.

Complementing this study is a report published in November by the Bipartisan Policy Center, prepared by a group of academic leaders led by two former governors: Jim Douglas of Vermont and Christine Gregoire of Washington (a former Willamette parent). Analyzing the current challenges to free expression on campus, the authors discuss contributing factors such as social media and political polarization. Perhaps most importantly to my mind, they make a strong argument that free expression is not a threat to building a safe and inclusive campus, but is instead one of the most important tools for achieving that goal.

The heart of the report is a roadmap for various stakeholders on campus, including administrators, faculty, coaches, and student affairs staff, to use both in supporting a culture that values free expression and in supporting community members when controversies arise.

The Chronicle of Higher Education hosted a discussion earlier this week about how free expression on college campuses is evolving. I encourage you to watch the webinar here (you will need to register to view it).

As we return in the weeks ahead to normal operations and the vibrant environment characteristic of both our Salem and Portland campuses, I have asked members of my leadership team to help our community be in conversation in the weeks and months ahead about free expression and its boundaries and to host events designed to educate and foster dialogue to both enrich our classrooms and strengthen our university’s culture and community.

I hope that these reports help provide a baseline understanding of some of the complex issues involved, as well as the diversity of attitudes that members of our community bring to the discussions.

Non nobis solum,

Willamette University

Office of the President

Salem Campus

Waller Hall, 5th Floor
900 State Street
Salem Oregon 97301 U.S.A.