Iowa regents survey students, employees on free speech

Dive Brief:

  • The Iowa Board of Regents, which governs the state’s three public universities, distributed a survey this week to gauge students’ and employees’ perceptions toward free speech on the campuses. 
  • The survey asks students, faculty and staff to rate a set of statements on free expression on a scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree,” according to news reports. None of the questions call for open-ended answers. 
  • It was developed from recommendations the board’s free speech committee made and the regents adopted in February. 

Dive Insight:

A series of incidents concerning free speech on the campuses — the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa — prompted the regents about a year ago to create a committee charged with studying the issue. 

In one notable case last October, the now-former dean of the University of Iowa’s College of Dentistry sent an email to the college with other officials condemning an executive order from then-President Donald Trump. That order, which President Joe Biden has since rescinded, forbade federal grantees from teaching ideologies such as that the U.S. is inherently racist. 

Michael Brase, a student in the College of Dentistry, replied in the email chain, suggesting the university should follow the order. Brase was later summoned to a disciplinary hearing for engaging in unprofessional conduct, reportedly for using public means to espouse his views. Brase also contacted lawmakers about the episode.

But it was the college dean, David Johnsen, who suffered the most fallout from the incident, and he stepped down in June 2021. The regents subsequently adopted new free speech policies in February, including that only universities, and not individual administrators or other officials, may take institutional positions on policy matters.

The new board policy dictated a free speech survey be conducted every other year. Students and employees have until Dec. 1 to complete the version sent out Tuesday. 

A spokesperson for the regents did not respond to a request for comment Friday. A copy of the survey was not publicly available.

Governing boards and state legislators have begun intervening more in free speech matters, often out of concern that it is under attack in higher education. Florida legislators this year passed a law requiring a similar survey to be administered at public colleges measuring students’ and employees’ comfort expressing their views.

The legislation also greenlit students to record faculty lectures to use in case a civil or criminal complaint ever arose against their institutions.

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