In 2021, we witnessed alumni rise up in defense of free speech on campuses across the country. Graduates from five colleges, ranging from small liberal arts institutions to the Ivies, joined together to form the Alumni Free Speech Alliance. This group of affiliated alumni organizations is dedicated to helping establish more independent alumni groups that are unified by the common idea that free speech and academic freedom are the drivers of progress and the key principle in American education. These five groups quickly doubled to ten and, in 2022, more alumni groups will join the ranks.
One of these new groups is composed of graduates from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. An early adopter of the Chicago Statement, UNC boasts FIRE’s highest, green light rating, which signals that the school’s speech codes don’t infringe on students’ free speech. When surveyed, the institution’s own students ranked the school 23 out of 154 in FIRE’s 2021 College Free Speech Rankings.
Based on the above metrics, UNC is doing very well, but the UNC Free Speech Alliance rightfully believes that it takes proactive alumni efforts to ensure the university stays on the right path. UNC Alliance founder, Chuck Houseworth, stated in an email exchange with FIRE that “UNC alumni have lacked an active, ongoing voice in promoting free speech and diversity of opinion on campus. The Alliance intends to give them that voice.”
Houseworth went on to commend UNC’s public commitment to free expression, but believes that there are several areas in which UNC can better execute on its commitments. He pointed to FIRE’s 2021 College Free Speech Ranking in which UNC ranks highly, but highlights a few aspects UNC can work to improve, such as the students’ perceptions of the administration’s willingness to defend the rights of controversial speakers and the tolerance for speakers of all political persuasions on campus.
FIRE is proud to partner with and empower these alumni groups as they strive to unite their fellow colleagues in an effort to improve the state of free speech at their alma maters.
The watchdog role is one alumni must take up once again, for it is much needed in the fight to stem the tide of illiberalism on campus. Universities rely on their graduates for countless things in the years after they leave the classroom. Whether it is using successful or famous graduates as brand building recruitment tools (such as American University’s latest Alumni Awards, where a judge and Academy Award winner were said to illustrate “something fundamental about this university”), or annual donations which both pad endowment funds and improve rankings in outlets like the U.S. News & World Report, alumni find themselves uniquely positioned to advocate on campus, but lack organization.
The UNC Free Speech Alliance aims to provide organization for the school’s graduates and a platform through which they can protect free expression on campus. In its first year, the Alliance intends to work with the administration to ensure all campus stakeholders are living up to the laudable commitment the campus has made to free expression, improve the student bodies willingness and comfort with expressing ideas, seek to increase the tolerance for political speech, and help ensure students can debate difficult topics in an intellectually free environment.
Houseworth is certain that they will “have a positive relationship with UNC administration, faculty, and students.” He and the more than 100 other members of the UNC Free Speech Alliance all have strong emotional connections to the school and its traditions, but Houseworth noted that “over the past several years UNC has veered from some of those traditions, particularly in promoting an environment where free speech and diversity of opinion reign supreme.”
FIRE is proud to partner with and empower these alumni groups as they strive to unite their fellow colleagues in an effort to improve the state of free speech at their alma maters. Long after alumni leave campus, they can still help their school ensure all students have access to the intellectually open and vigorous education they themselves received.
We hope you’ll join FIRE and groups like the UNC Free Speech Alliance as we seek to defend and preserve the individual rights of students and faculty at your alma mater.
We urge you to subscribe to the UNC Free Speech Alliance and consider signing up for FIRE’s Alumni Network. You’ll receive breaking news curated specifically for your alma mater, including FIRE’s latest legal developments, strategies for activism, and reporting related to free speech and academic freedom.
More importantly, if you want to be part of the solution on your campus, you can let us know, so that we know what campuses might prove fertile ground for an alumni free speech group to grow, and reach out to you when that time comes.
Let’s make 2022 the year of the alumni. We hope you’ll join FIRE and groups like the UNC Free Speech Alliance as we seek to defend and preserve the individual rights of students and faculty at your alma mater.