Davidson College Affirms Free Speech

By approving its own version of a noted free-expression statement, the liberal-arts institution takes a major step in the right direction.

Last week, faculty at Davidson College affirmed their commitment to free expression on campus by approving their own version of the Chicago Principles. It’s a step that the pro-free-speech organization Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse (DFTD) has been promoting for five years and a major free-speech milestone for the college.

In an email to the Martin Center, DFTD founder John Craig described the statement as “a landmark document for Davidson.”

The statement affirms:

True free speech, free expression, and academic freedom are not generational or preferential. In pledging to honor these ideals, we must recognize that this task can be arduous and precarious. Davidson has a professed commitment to free inquiry and to the inclusion of diverse persons and communities. We admit that these obligations have historically been more aspirational than actual. Acknowledging the intentional and unintentional exclusion of ideas and identities is both honest and constructive. Individuals and groups have been marginalized and their voices muted based on race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, disability, class, ideology, citizenship, and religious or political affiliation.

Craig said, “DFTD is very pleased with the Commitment to Freedom of Expression statement just affirmed by Davidson’s faculty. [We] look forward to helping ensure activation of the stated principles throughout the Davidson College community. We greatly appreciate the work that the drafters and faculty put into developing and gaining affirmation of this statement.”

Davidson’s progress demonstrates the importance of engaged alumni.The campaign began when DFTD sent a letter to then-president Carol Quillen urging policy changes including the “adoption and vigorous implementation at Davidson of the Chicago Principles of Free Expression—the ‘gold standard’ of free speech in academia.”

Then, in October 2021, President Quillen appointed a working group to draft and submit a statement on freedom of expression that would be distinctive to Davidson in relating free speech to the school’s ideal of inclusiveness.

The new commitment was drafted by a working group consisting of two faculty members (Issac Bailey and Susan Roberts), two students, one current Davidson trustee, and Martin Center namesake former governor Jim Martin. Martin praised Davidson’s efforts in a college press release, saying,

Our nation needs more of what Davidson can provide—a place where debate runs civilly and freely, in a residence hall or a lecture hall. The college has produced doers and thinkers who made our society and our world better because their ideas and arguments were challenged every day on campus. This commitment was crafted by a group who came from different backgrounds, experiences and ideologies, and those differences brought a lasting result.

There is still work to be done at Davidson. DFTD’s wishlist for reforms includes policy changes that would raise the college’s FIRE rating to a “Green Light” score and new guidelines for on-campus political activism by the college’s leadership.

DFTD also wants the college to make “a concerted effort to diversify ideologically invited external speakers,” an issue on which there has been some progress, and to administer “biennial independently conducted confidential surveys of students and faculty to assess the state of free expression, open discourse, and ideological balance on campus.” DFTD provided a baseline for such a survey when it commissioned its own surveys of Davidson students and major donors in the fall of 2021.

With these steps, Davidson is moving in the right direction. This progress demonstrates the importance of engaged alumni and groups like Davidsonians for Freedom of Thought and Discourse.

Jenna A. Robinson is the president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.