In September 2021, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released survey findings regarding freedom of expression on college campuses that ranked DePauw last among the 154 institutions it surveyed out of 4000 colleges and universities across the country. FIRE gave DePauw a “red light” in the Internet Usage Policies category, meaning the policy “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
In response to the findings, DePauw President Lori S. White said, “it is a concern that some students at DePauw who responded to the survey indicated they did not always feel free to fully express themselves. That is why we are engaged in many initiatives to affirm our commitment to freedom of expression at DePauw.”
White also addressed the findings in her presidential update on December 15 and said that even though the 154 institutions represent less than four percent of higher education institutions in the U.S, her priority is to create an atmosphere where all DePauw students feel comfortable voicing their opinions. In addition, she met with two FIRE representatives to discuss DePauw’s ranking: Mary Zoeller, senior program officer for policy reform, and Sean Stevens, senior research fellow for polling and analytics.
The Student Academic Life Committee (SALC) recently proposed changes to the Academic Handbook’s statement on the freedom of academic expression of DePauw students. The changes are to be finalized by the end of the spring term. The new statement clarifies the preamble, uses more gender-inclusive language, and has new text addressing the freedom of expression of students while attending university-affiliated international programs and activities.
Despite DePauw’s ranking in FIRE’s survey, the development of the new statement was not necessarily prompted by the survey findings, according to White. Rather, updating the statement has allowed DePauw to affirm its institutional mission which, White says, is to foster two compatible values: freedom of expression and diversity and inclusion.
According to Scott Spiegelberg, dean of academic programs, DePauw proposed the new statement because the previous one was outdated.
“Our previous statement was from 1966, which was a very very different world perspective at that point,” Spiegelberg said. “At the time, the US was looking at Vietnam and college students were thinking about whether they would be drafted into going to war. It was the beginning of the cold war era. There were concerns about nuclear weapons.”
He added that the statements that were meant to protect students’ rights to free speech at that point were very different from DePauw’s current objectives. In particular, Spiegelberg thinks that the university is now trying to reinforce its commitment to freedom of speech while creating an inclusive environment.
Spiegelberg said that the updated statement contains principles from the Chicago Statement, the free speeech policy statement produced by the University of Chicago. According to him, DePauw should only use aspects of the chicago statement instead of fully instituting it.
“We wanted to make sure it [the new statement] was something that was right for the DePauw community which is different from the University of Chicago’s,” Spiegelberg said.
As for the current restrictions on free speech, Spiegelberg thinks that there are limited circumstances in which speech is monitered in the classroom, particularly when it comes to restricting students and faculty from expressing bigoted statements.
“It is not just about a word that’s used but rather how the word is used,” Spiegelberg said. “[That] could determine whether it actually would be considered a bigoted statement or not.” Spiegelberg added that restricting bigoted statements in an academic setting serves to protect the classroom environment and create an atmosphere in which everyone feels comfortable.
Dave Berque, vice president for academic affairs, pointed out the idea that students from a wide range of institutions across the country feel pressure to self-censor their speech regardless of their political views.
“Undoubtedly, the desire to self-censor that we see nationally, also occurs at DePauw,” Berque said. He thinks that updating DePauw's statement on free expression will help to bring focus to the issue at DePauw by shifting students’ perspectives on what free speech means.
Jeffrey McCall, a communications and journalism professor at DePauw, also thinks that DePauw has some challenges with regard to free speech on campus. He said that the comments from DePauw students found in last fall's FIRE survey provide much evidence of these concerns.
“Anecdotally, students in classes I teach that deal with free expression have signaled these concerns for a number of years,” McCall said. “Students sense their speech is stifled in some classrooms and in dormitories.”
According to him, updating the statement of free speech cannot alone address DePauw’s challenge. Rather, DePauw's commitment to free speech has to be lived.
“It will take more than paper to fix a problem that has been years in the making and is now a part of campus culture,” McCall said, adding that it is not clear yet how DePauw can put this updated statement into action. Mccall also pointed out the concision and clarity of the Chicago Statement and said that a number of universities of interest to DePauw such as Purdue, Washington University in St. Louis, Denison, Ball State, Miami of Ohio, Kenyon, and Ohio Wesleyan have already adopted it.
“It is understandable why DePauw might want its own statement, but any statement that gets too long-winded and starts over explaining is in danger of watering itself down,” McCall said.
Senior Nina Stular, who wrote her honor scholars thesis on freedom of expression, found the amendments made in the preamble of the new statement concerning. She said the preamble was changed from a concise affirmational statement to an obtuse and confusing one.
“It’s not clearly affirmed in the preamble that freedom of expression is fundamental to other values,” Stular said. “It’s difficult to juggle freedom of speech with other values such as diversity and inclusion but it lacks clarity.”
In addition, Stular thinks DePauw should institute the Chicago Statement. “University of Chicago's statement is clear precisely in ways in which DePauw is being very obtuse,” Stular said. “They affirm that freedom of expression is fundamental to academic inquiry.”
This story was updated November 19, 2022.