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Furman University alumni unite to combat illiberal campus trends

Furman Mall at Furman University on May 2 2019 in Greenville

Bryan Pollard /

After years of asking privately for free speech reform at their alma mater, alumni are uniting to make the change they want to see at Furman University. Together they’ve formed the Furman Free Speech Alliance to combat restrictions on student and faculty speech at the university.

Jeffrey Salmon is the dedicated free speech advocate and Furman alumnus behind this group’s formation. 

“I love Furman, it shaped me in ways I can’t measure,” said Salmon, who graduated in 1973 with a degree in political science and government. “My son is a Furman grad too, and his experience was positive — academically, socially, and in terms of career focus and advancement.”

But over the years, Jeffrey has begun to worry about the university's trajectory, and it’s no mystery why. Furman’s policies around expression earn FIRE’s worst “red light” speech code rating for maintaining at least one policy “that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” Policies like this have a chilling effect on student expression, deteriorating the tradition of vibrant discourse rooted deep in the university’s culture.

Charting Furman’s free speech decline

Unwilling to let Furman’s speech culture deteriorate without a fight, Jeffrey began to communicate to university leadership about his concerns. He boldly wrote a letter to Furman President Elizabeth Davis asking, among other things, for the university to adopt the “Chicago Statement,” a model free speech policy statement that many universities have adopted to affirm their commitment to free expression. 

Jeffrey said he received no “substantive response from anyone at Furman” to his letter. 

Despite his efforts to convince university leadership to course-correct, Jeffrey has observed the culture surrounding free expression at Furman only decline further. He is concerned that if left unchecked, a climate hostile to expression will choke out the healthy academic discourse that made his and his fellow alums’ experience at Furman so formative.

We’ll be standing by at FIRE ready to support alumni efforts to reform speech codes, encourage debate, and ensure students receive the distinctive Furman experience

FIRE’s 2024 College Free Speech Rankings support Jeffrey’s observations. Furman ranked 163 of 248 colleges and universities for free expression. Notably, the university earned a spot in the bottom 10 (243rd out of 248) in the “comfort expressing ideas” category. Only 4% of surveyed Furman students stated they feel “very comfortable” “publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial political topic,” and only 18% said they are only “somewhat comfortable.” 

Compared with the 38% of students who said they are “very uncomfortable” expressing disagreement in this context, the findings are clear: Furman students are afraid to express themselves.

Though not as extreme as its “comfort expressing ideas” ranking, Furman’s“openness” ranking is also poor, landing at 148 out of 248 schools. Furman students broadly expressed their discomfort with discussions about gun control, sexual assault, gay rights, abortion, trans issues, and racial inequality — key political topics that need to remain open to conversation in institutions of higher education.

Uniting to improve free speech at Furman

Jeffrey and the other Furman alumni united expressly to reverse these results. 

College student with a backpack walking down a hallway.

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The Furman Free Speech Alliance’s stated mission is “to support Furman as an outstanding contributor in the advancement of knowledge driven by a basic and unquestioned dedication to free expression and free inquiry.” On the website, its stated goals emphasize policy reform, Chicago Statement adoption, and introducing incoming students to the principles of free expression at orientation.

Though the group faces an uphill battle, FIRE Senior Program Officer Mary Griffin is excited to see this group springing up at her alma mater.  

“As a proud Furman alumna, I am heartened to see the formation of the Furman Free Speech Alliance with pragmatic goals to encourage robust free inquiry on campus,” said Griffin. “Improving the campus climate for free expression through policy revisions, facilitation of free debate, exposure to new ideas, and education on the importance of expressive rights will only enhance an already exemplary student experience at Furman.”

We’ll be standing by at FIRE ready to support alumni efforts to reform speech codes, encourage debate, and ensure students receive the distinctive Furman experience that meant so much to Jeffrey and Mary.

Although we understand institutional change cannot occur overnight, we are thrilled that these Furman alumni are taking the first step to reforming their alma mater.

For any Furman alumni who are interested in joining Jeffrey, head over to the Furman Free Speech Alliance website and subscribe to the group’s email list.

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