Encourage civic participation by championing free speech

Instead of shying away from the challenges it presents, let’s embrace free speech as an opportunity for learning, growth and the continuous evolution of our academic spaces, writes Shubha HS

Shubha HS's avatar
13 May 2024
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As higher education professionals, it is our responsibility to nurture an environment where distinct voices are heard, valued and debated. Encouraging free speech on campus not only prepares students for a complex world beyond the classroom but informs their perspective and makes them more likely to participate in the democratic process. Some practical approaches to nurture it include:

Championing a clear vision

Establishing clear and comprehensive institutional policies and protocols that allow for free speech and underline the importance of inclusivity and respect signals a commitment to upholding the values of open debate. Articulating the policies and protocols in official documents, student handbooks and faculty guidelines and establishing a well-defined process for reporting incidents of harassment, intimidation or attempts to restrain free speech ensures swift and fair investigation and resolution.  

Providing training on civic discourses

Conducting workshops that help students develop skills in effective communication, active listening, combating disinformation and critical thinking will enhance the quality of debates and foster an intellectually stimulating environment. The training can be in the form of courses or workshops and should empower students to respectfully disagree and intervene in potentially hostile situations, rather than behave as passive bystanders.

Providing mentorship

Mentorship programmes promote a culture of open dialogue by helping students navigate complex intellectual discourses and encouraging them to express their opinions freely with their mentors. 

Offering hands-on learning opportunities

Help students apply theoretical knowledge to real-world issues by setting assignments that connect the students with the wider community. For example, students studying public relations can run awareness campaigns on voting and community service, take part in internships with NGOs and contribute to community projects. Developing partnerships with local community organisations and NGOs also strengthens the ties between the institution and the community. Running courses covering topics such as social justice and public policy will encourage students to critically examine social challenges and equip them with tools to actively contribute to positive change.

Integrating diverse perspectives into the curriculum

Course materials and syllabi reflecting diverse views expose students to a range of ideas. Furthermore, encouraging students to study or intern abroad enhances their understanding of diverse cultures, broadening their horizons and encouraging them to consider their roles as global citizens. Follow up on such experiences with group discussions. 

Encouraging interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinary collaborations on civic projects allow students from various academic disciplines to come together and solve issues that impact the community. For example, nursing and dental students can conduct awareness camps together to educate young people about personal and dental hygiene, and communications students can create informational content such as videos and posters alongside them. This approach not only prepares students for the workplace but also equips them with the skills and values they need to actively contribute to the betterment of society. 

Rewarding students for their work

Issuing certificates of appreciation for civic participation in the presence of other students acknowledges good deeds and reinforces the value of civic responsibility, encouraging others to get involved in the process. 

Getting into the heads of your students

Using online platforms like Microsoft Teams to facilitate discussions allows faculty and students to engage in dialogue beyond the classroom. Carry out surveys to gauge the climate around free speech and use the feedback to make informed decisions, keeping in mind the campus community’s evolving needs and concerns.

Leading by example

As educators, when we communicate with our students and colleagues in a respectful and open-minded way, we nurture a respectful environment. When we acknowledge the limitations of our own perspectives, we encourage students to do the same, fostering intellectual humility and a willingness to learn from others in the process. When we allow ourselves and our students to explore controversial topics and challenge assumptions without fear of repercussions, we champion academic freedom. 

By committing to these practical steps, we can create inclusive, vibrant communities where diverse ideas can flourish through civil, open discourse. Instead of shying away from the challenges it presents, let’s embrace free speech as an opportunity for learning, growth and the continuous evolution of our academic spaces. It can prepare a generation of socially conscious and responsible individuals who will make a positive impact on the world.

Shubha HS is a professor and coordinator (international programmes) at Manipal Institute of Communication, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, India.

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