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From worst to first: Alumni help Bucknell surge up FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings

Illustration of Bucknell University

TaniaLudz /

An innovative alumni-led organization that focuses on intellectual diversity and the free exchange of ideas is making waves at Bucknell University.

The Open Discourse Coalition has helped raise Bucknell University from the worst-rated college for free speech in the state of Pennsylvania to the best in just one year by creating exciting programming opportunities for students. By establishing an office and meeting space within a few blocks of campus, alumni showed their long-term commitment to encouraging rigorous dialogue on campus. 

The coalition has hosted eight speakers across all sides of the political spectrum in its first year of campus engagement — encouraging students to listen to those with perspectives different from their own and embrace debate over controversial issues. In doing so, the group has used the transformative power of conversation and debate to encourage students to explore and express ideas without fear. 

Dawn Toguchi, who graduated from Bucknell in 2005, now serves as the executive director of the Open Discourse Coalition. In an interview with FIRE, she recounted Bucknell’s rise through FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings from 118th in 2021 to 48th in 2022:

When Open Discourse Coalition was beginning in-person programming in the fall of 2021, Bucknell ranked poorly in FIRE’s 2021 College Free Speech Rankings. In just one year, Bucknell moved from the worst ranked Pennsylvania school to the best, jumping 70 spots. We are so proud of this improvement and only want to keep moving up!

The key to Open Discourse Coalition’s success? Student engagement. 

Dawn and her team have “made it a priority to actively engage with students and sponsor and host lectures, panel discussions, reading groups, and seminars throughout the semester.” 

The Coalition does not shy away from difficult topics, instead demonstrating to students — who might otherwise not witness tough conversations — that discussion between those with opposing views is possible. To that end, the Open Discourse Coalition has hosted several events on a number of topics that students often find difficult to discuss. According to Dawn, event discussions covered “abortion, gun rights, and race and gender in curriculum,” presenting both sides of each argument. She continued, “At each program, students heard thoughtful perspectives and respectful disagreement — and had the opportunity to ask their own challenging questions.”

Dawn said the goal when discussing controversial issues “is to provide students with differing, well-informed perspectives to allow them to make their own informed conclusions.”

Bringing alumni and students together provides crucial networking opportunities for students and can encourage them to exercise their free expression rights.

Not only does the coalition host meaningful discussions for students, but it also engages Bucknell alumni, encouraging them to attend events. In this way, the Open Discourse Coalition bridges the gap between two campus stakeholders who rarely have the opportunity to meet outside in more informal settings. Through the Coalition’s leadership seminar, a student reported, “I was able to interact with and study successful alumni through the course, building relationships that have opened many new doors for me.”

Bringing alumni and students together provides crucial networking opportunities for students and can encourage them to exercise their free expression rights by showing them that they are not alone in their desire to speak freely. Alumni enjoy the opportunity to invest in the next generation and benefit from the students’ on-the-ground knowledge about their alma mater. 

Needless to say, it’s a mutually beneficial opportunity that the coalition is wise to encourage.

So how well did Bucknell do?

Bucknell’s improvement between 2021 and 2022 on the “Comfort Expressing Ideas” component in FIRE’s College Free Speech Rankings database reflect this success:

% saying "somewhat" or "very" comfortable:

How comfortable would you feel doing the following on your campus?20212022Change
Publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic. 29%39%+10%
Expressing disagreement with one of your professors about a controversial topic in a written assignment.41%59%+18%
Expressing your views on a controversial political topic during an in-class discussion.45%61%+16%
Expressing your views on a controversial political topic to other students during a discussion in a common campus space, such as a quad, dining hall, or lounge.65%80%+15%
Expressing an unpopular opinion to your fellow students on a social media account tied to your name.45%51%+6%

As illustrated by this table, students at Bucknell became more comfortable expressing their opinions across the board over the last year. Besides expressing their own ideas, more students stated it was never acceptable to use violence to stop a campus speech: 86% in 2022 compared with only 74% in 2021. We’re happy to see the Open Discourse Coalition’s work to bring diverse viewpoints to campus has even encouraged students to disfavorably view the use of violence as a means of quelling offensive speech. 

Student raising his hand in a classroom

Just released: The 2022-2023 College Free Speech Rankings

Press Release

The largest survey on student free expression ever conducted adds 45,000 student voices to the national conversation about free speech on college campuses — and finds that many are afraid to speak out on their campus.

Read More

Although Bucknell’s scores showed phenomenal improvement overall, not every marker increased. Students reported decreased levels of confidence in their administration’s support for free expression. In 2021, for example, 38% of students surveyed said the administration’s stance on free speech was “extremely” or “very” clear and 46% said it was “very” or “extremely” likely that the administration would support a speaker’s right to free speech during a controversy. By comparison, in 2022 these same statistics were 22% and 32%, respectively — a marked decrease from the previous year. 

These results suggest that improvements in free speech culture at Bucknell are not the result of administrative efforts. Bucknell alumni, in contrast, are supporting student expression. It’s high time the administration does the same.

The work of Dawn and her colleagues demonstrates that, just because administrators — or even students — do not support free expression, change is possible. The activities of alumni and other campus constituents can encourage students who are hesitant to express ideas or ask questions to become more courageous. By winning the hearts and minds of students, alumni can transform the culture of a university.

“We are seeing more faculty and students seeking out ways to get involved and create more opportunities for open discourse on campus,” said Dawn. With well-earned pride in the progress at Bucknell, she has even higher hopes for the future. 

Considering the hard work put in by the Open Discourse Coalition, we’re excited to see this budding free speech culture flourish at Bucknell.

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