Free Speech and Open Inquiry Are “Non-Negotiable”

Aimee Guidera, Secretary of Education

by James A. Bacon

Governor Glenn Youngkin made a national name for himself by standing up for parents’ rights in public education. His administration has engaged in bruising battles over transgender policy, critical race theory, and educational standards in K-12 schools. His approach to higher-ed issues has been far less contentious. Other than fighting for a year-long freeze in college tuition & fees, which he won, Youngkin’s higher-ed policy has generated few headlines.

That doesn’t mean Youngkin has neglected higher education. Rather than take a confrontational approach, such as seen in Florida and North Carolina, the governor is trying to work within the system. In a keynote address delivered to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) Friday, Amy Guidera, Virginia’s Secretary of Education, described the administration’s philosophy.

The purpose of higher education is to equip students to become more productive and constructive members of society, Guidera said. Allowing free speech, free inquiry and intellectual diversity is critical to achieving the larger goal. It is important, she said, for students to “be confronted with ideas and beliefs [they] have never encountered before.”

Rather than enact legislation, Youngkin has chosen to work with the Council of Presidents, comprised of the presidents of Virginia’s public colleges and universities. He has met with the Council every quarter, something that no previous governor did, Guidera said. In those meetings he has been clear about his support for “a culture of free expression.”

A positive outcome of those meetings was a statement by Virginia’s university presidents in support of both free speech and intellectual diversity. “As presidents of Virginia’s public colleges and universities, we unequivocally support free expression and viewpoint diversity on our campuses,” said the statement. That statement created a yardstick for measuring the policies and practices of individual institutions.

Voicing support for free speech is not the same as enforcing the principle in the face of intolerant campus radicals — as the shout-down of a right-to-life group at Virginia Commonwealth University last week vividly demonstrated. VCU campus police intervened only when the protest started to turn violent. Effectively, the protesters canceled the event.

Universities need to do more than pass resolutions. Guidera mentioned several concrete approaches to explore: highlighting free speech in student orientations, sponsoring events that feature a wider range of viewpoints, and encouraging viewpoint diversity in hiring.

Guidera also hopes to advance free speech and viewpoint diversity through the appointment of individuals sharing those goals to boards of visitors across the state. The administration partnered with free-speech organizations ACTA and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) to provide training sessions for newly appointed board members. The administration is also reaching out to, or partnering with like-minded national organizations such as the Heterodox Academy and the Constructive Dialogue Institute.

The challenge of building “a culture of freedom and open discourse” begins even before students get to college: students need to gain a strong grounding in civics in K-12. Giving them that grounding has been a priority for the administration, which has expended considerable political capital revamping Virginia’s history/civics Standards of Learning.

The administration’s approach to higher education fits into Youngkin’s broad aim of making Virginia the best place in America to live, work and raise a family, Guidera said. One of Virginia’s greatest attributes has been its world-class public schools and public universities. To maintain that reputation, she said, Virginia educators need to teach students “how to think, not what to think.”

“Free speech and open inquiry,” Guidera concluded, “are non-negotiable.”

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15 responses to “Free Speech and Open Inquiry Are “Non-Negotiable””

  1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
    James C. Sherlock

    There need to be clear consequences for not only blocking free speech, but also failing to protect it.

    Everyone associated with VCU who participated in blocking the event should be fired or expelled. The police chief should be fired for failing to even attempt to protect it.

    Next case.

  2. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    Drag is speech too, my friend.

    1. Nathan Avatar

      Yes it is, but so is pornography.

      The fact that something might be considered free speech, doesn’t necessarily mean it is appropriate for all venues.

      Playboy is considered free speech, but not appropriate for children. I recall that even libraries that had it would cover up the picture on the front and only make it available to adults.

      Drag queens for children is yet another area where the left is creating controversy and dividing the country. In the not so distant past, there was consensus on many of these areas. It was the left that moved and became radical.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        So… Milton Berle was not suitable for children? Buddy Hackett had two shows, one blue.

        But, the problem we have is the nearly complete bans, not a reasoned one.

        1. Nathan Avatar

          The bans are a reaction to the fact that many of today’s liberal activists have no common sense whatsoever.

          And those who aren’t crazy are often afraid to speak up.

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            And only conservatives do?

          2. Nathan Avatar

            What? Have common sense?

            On some issues, apparently so.


      2. VaNavVet Avatar

        Tell that to the ult-right replacement conspiracy theorists that marched in Charlottesville to “unite the right”.

        1. Nathan Avatar

          The white supremacist’s who went to Charlottesville are the scum of the Earth. I don’t plan to tell them anything, other than to shut up and go away.

  3. VaNavVet Avatar

    Perhaps the Youngkin admin merely realized that is was getting battered on too many fronts as it is.

  4. M. Purdy Avatar
    M. Purdy

    Just don’t openly inquire about race in this country. Whatever you do, don’t do that.

  5. beachguy Avatar

    Students who disrupt guest speakers do such a disservice to the collegial spirit of higher learning. I wish it was school policy universally that disrupting speaking events will result in suspension or expulsion . If you have a problem with someone’s point of view, be willing to challenge them with facts and civility.

  6. James McCarthy Avatar
    James McCarthy

    IMO, the educational process in the classroom ought to be primarily one in which the students will “be confronted with ideas and beliefs [they] have never encountered before.
    That also seems to be the rub in the present debate concerning curricula content. Perhaps, the Gov has had that experience in his first years in office.

  7. VaPragamtist Avatar

    “Voicing support for free speech is not the same as enforcing the principle in the face of intolerant campus radicals — as the shout-down of a right-to-life group at Virginia Commonwealth University last week vividly demonstrated”

    I’m adamantly pro life and pro free speech.

    But let’s be fair in reporting. Assuming this is the same right-to-life group that organized an event at Virginia Tech recently, their marketing strategies for the event seemed to indicate they wanted this kind of response: they specifically targeted listservs associated with far-left groups with “facts for debate” unrelated to the topic of abortion meant to trigger an outcry.

    To complain about lack of “free speech” when this reaction was their intended result is silly. Though the far left groups also should have been mature enough to see through the act and just ignore the right-to-life groups rather than feed the flames.

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