Executive Commentary
Academia’s Challenge: Free Speech, Diversity and Inclusion
Jim Jenkins
Jim Jenkins
CEO, Universities East, Sodexo North America

“You don’t have true freedom until you allow a diversity of opinion and a diversity of voices.” Journalist Don Lemon’s outlook is highly relevant as an increasingly eclectic student demographic returns to college and university campuses. Once relatively homogenous, today’s students include a mix of first-generation, foreign and older students who bring distinctive cultural backgrounds, needs and experiences that shape their opinions and contribute to a richer, more vibrant dialogue. Still, while positive, these differences contribute to a significant amount of anxiety; in addition to adjusting to a new environment, navigating a cross-cultural campus life can be challenging. And, perhaps for the first time, students encounter strong opinions that differ markedly from their own.

This demographic shift is coinciding with a period of significant disruption and controversy, both hallmarks of a free society. While divergent points of view have long shaped the history of the United States, the challenges to free speech on many college and university campuses is a burning issue for current higher education leaders. As Dr. Ronald A.  Crutcher, President of University of Richmond, writes in “Free Speech and Inclusive Learning Communities,” the first chapter of the 2018/2019 President to President series, “Higher education’s recent propensity to disinvite speakers who are controversial, or with whom we don’t agree, is tearing our campuses apart. As institutions dedicated to teaching and learning, our mission is to stand up to this dangerous brand of civic chicanery. Most presidents are forced to confront bullies who aim to restrict the very freedoms they claim to cherish.”

The responsibility to model substantive disagreement and dialogue that fosters change

A 2018 Gallup poll supported by the Knight Foundation found that 37% of college students believe that shouting down speakers is acceptable “at least sometimes, ” a finding that disturbs Dr. Crutcher: “I candidly wish that number was smaller because I believe that much of the fervor surrounding our First Amendment discussions begins with our inability to let people speak—freely and uninterrupted.”

The University’s response to controversy has been to fearlessly welcome debate. Dr. Crutcher writes, “Usher them through the front door, so to speak, prepare to be surprised, and celebrate the debate while holding everyone (including the speakers) accountable for their words and actions.”

Preparing to enter a diverse workforce

This courageous approach advances diversity and inclusion on campus, the factors that create the welcoming environment students seek. Colleges and universities have a major role to play by preparing students for workplace realities through open dialogue and exposure to different viewpoints, emphasizing that academic freedom is based on freedom of speech and inclusivity. Courageous institutions can champion the importance of diversity, inclusion and freedom of expression through their marketing and recruitment efforts, as well as through direct communications with students. Creating a welcoming, inclusive environment is critical to helping students find their niche on campus and succeed.

One of the central tenets of diversity has been the fight against stereotypes, assumptions about a group’s characteristics and beliefs based on falsehoods and prejudice. Exposing students to different points of view reinforces this imperative. Their daily campus experiences influence the outcome as well, through interactions with faculty and support staff members. Today’s students are tomorrow’s workforce, and as they transition from academia, where they’re treated with extra care and may have more leeway to express controversial opinions, into corporate life, they will undoubtedly have to adjust their expectations and behaviors if they are to succeed.

Academia can potentially benefit from understanding the experience of companies like Sodexo that have long been recognized as leaders in diversity and inclusion. At Sodexo, diversity and inclusion is a business imperative, grounded in our core values of team spirit and the spirit of service and progress, and they are a key factor in employee engagement. Our ongoing efforts to improve Quality of Life are guided by research. In addition to studies on diversity and inclusion, the Workplace Trends Report and the International Student Lifestyle Survey, as well as our expertise in sustainability, guide and strengthen our objectives as a company, helping us meet the needs of an increasingly diverse marketplace.

In our continued commitment to be an inclusive organization, we embrace, leverage and respect the diversity of our workforce, our clientele and the communities in which we live, work and serve. When academia and business take on the challenge to strengthen diversity and inclusion together, the benefits to students – and society – will be significant.

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