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IOWA CITY — Iowa’s public universities have not systematically trained or polled their campuses on First Amendment and free-speech issues and experiences, but the Board of Regents is moving ahead with plans for both.
The University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa for years have conducted separate “climate” surveys focused largely on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion; sexual violence; and safety on the campuses. But the board this summer will “identify the questions, processes, and timeline” for a systemwide survey on free speech issues.
In the meantime, according to regent documents, “All campuses will continue to pay particular attention to providing a welcoming climate for all faculty, staff, students and community members, while also ensuring that the policies and processes for addressing suppression of speech are clearly communicated.”
Those commitments and plans were aired Wednesday during the first meeting of the Board of Regents’ new free speech committee, established in November on the heels of incidents and complaints at all three public universities.
Grievances over some incidents sparked an explosion of free speech discourse and debate during the 2021 Iowa legislative session, specifically among Republican lawmakers who pitched a swath of proposed laws aimed at, among other things, ending tenure; asking campus employees about their political affiliations; mandating instructors post course outlines; imposing free speech training; and enshrining into state code campus free speech policies.
Regents responded by publicly condemning the incidents and convening the free speech committee. In February, it proposed a list of 10 recommendations barring university resources from going toward partisan activities; institutions from taking policy positions unless done in concert with the board; and campuses from denying benefits to students or student organization due to their viewpoints.
The committee also recommended updated free speech training, websites and policies; improved polling of free speech experiences on campus; and mandated syllabus statements be attached to every course spelling out student rights and expectations.
The syllabus mandate spoke specifically to an incident at ISU involving a professor who, in her fall syllabus, barred students from choosing project and paper topics opposing things like same-sex marriage, abortion and Black Lives Matter. In response, ISU Provost Jonathan Wickert in November disseminated a statement, which was mandated for all courses, affirming existing ISU policies.
“Iowa State University supports and upholds the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech and the principle of academic freedom in order to foster a learning environment where open inquiry and the vigorous debate of a diversity of ideas are encouraged,” according to the statement. “Students will not be penalized for the content or viewpoints of their speech as long as student expression in a class context is germane to the subject matter of the class and conveyed in an appropriate manner.”
UI and UNI were directed to follow suit, and crafted a syllabus statement they started using this summer that, like ISU’s, affirms the campuses support and uphold First Amendment protections and the “responsible exchange of diverse ideas on our campus.”
When looking at First Amendment training options, regents counsel Aimee Claeys said the board is pursuing both campuswide training and targeted training for specific departments and groups.
Although the board investigated the option of employing training modules already in use in the wider market, officials discovered none exist, Claeys said. The campuses then debated between creating something in-house or partnering with a firm to produce something.
“There are a couple of companies out there who would be willing and able to do this 15- to 20-minute module within the time frame that we desire,” she said, noting the board is pursuing those options and opportunities this summer.
While the board also this summer is investigating free speech survey options, Chief Academic Officer Rachel Boon shared some of the data already available at the national and local level.
The Gallup Organization last year released a “First Amendment on Campus 2020 Report” incorporating findings from three national surveys in 2016, 2017 and 2019 involving more than 3,300 full-time college students pursuing bachelor degrees.
“The results highlight many of the challenges of trying to understand the context for free speech on college campuses,” according to board documents.
For example, while 81 percent of respondents said they support a “campus environment of open speech, even if some of it is offensive,” a growing percentage also support “restrictions on the use of racial slurs and costumes that stereotype certain racial/ethnic groups.” That latter percentage increased from 69 percent in 2016 to 78 percent in 2019, according to the report.
Another question found nearly three-fourths of respondents don’t want colleges to restrict expression of political views offensive to some, although 78 percent also support college-provided spaces on campus “free from threatening actions, ideas and conversations.”
The Iowa-specific climate surveys — while not specifically or solely about free speech — did include questions and references to the issue, like a UI poll of faculty and staff in the fall that asked whether the UI “provides an environment for the free and open expression of ideas, opinions and beliefs.”
Combining the “strongly agree” to “somewhat agree” responses, results found stronger affirmation from staff at 78 percent and political conservatives at 72 percent, but weaker support among those in the LGBTQ category at 69 percent, those who identify as transgender or non-conforming at 60 percent and underrepresented minorities at 56 percent.