The Koch Institute Is Worried About Free Speech on Campus. But Not in the Way You Might Think.

Polls show that Republicans increasingly view higher education as bad for America. Fox News commentators so frequently blast colleges as leftist and intolerant that there’s a stand-alone section for it on the Fox News website, dubbed “Campus Craziness.”

Charles Koch Institute

Sarah Ruger

Into that environment comes the Charles Koch Institute, an educational organization affiliated with the well-known conservative foundation, arguing that there’s a lot of good happening on America’s campuses, and, unfortunately, a lot of “reactive policies” being pushed by state lawmakers in response to overblown free speech controversies.

The Chronicle chatted with Sarah Ruger, the director of free expression for the Koch Institute, about campus free-speech debates, the solutions supported by her organization, and what is at stake. The conversation took place a week after Ruger and other Koch officials made headlines by publicly criticizing the confrontational stance that some right-leaning groups have taken toward higher education. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the state of free expression at universities, in your opinion, currently?

We are definitely deeply, deeply concerned about what we view as being the escalating antagonism and skepticism towards the institution as a whole, driven by a lot of this conversation about threats to free expression on campus. And that’s because we view higher education as such a key and critical institution for any free and flourishing society. So when we see increasing skepticism towards its value, we become very alarmed. And while threats to free speech and open inquiry definitely exist on campus, I’m concerned that they’re not proportionally covered relative to the exciting stories of the many, many faculty and students who are seeking dialogue and discourse across divides, that our programs support.

Why do you think that disproportionate media coverage exists?

A lot of times the stories are eye-catching and eye-popping. They tend to be exceptional events at the campuses where they occur. And I certainly understand the human-interest aspect there. Anytime anyone’s free-speech rights are violated, I think it merits some degree of critical inquiry. Those are vital rights for a lot of reasons. It’s just important to not conflate that concern with the declining interest in the institution as a whole and to not translate that concern into counterproductive attempts to correct for it.

Does the Koch Institute have an official position regarding the free-speech legislation that’s been moving through statehouses around the country?

What we very, very strongly stand against are any measures that speak to politicize the campus or in any way increase censorship or bolster the kind of intimidation that you’re seeing running rampant.

We’re concerned with the mandatory minimum punishment provision that was put forward by the Goldwater Institute in a few states that would have mandated punishments for student hecklers or protesters after three violations. We’re very concerned that would chill speech on campus, and ultimately stifle dialogue as opposed to increasing it. We’ve been concerned with, and vocally critical of, measures that would attempt to impose ideological litmus tests on campuses, like what was proposed in Iowa.

Bottom line being, we’re for policies and measures that bolster academic freedom, protect free expression, and do so in a non-ideological way.

How do minimum punishments potentially stifle speech?

Ultimately, our philanthropy is about elevating civil discourse — it’s civil discourse that exposes the flaws — it’s what drives empathy between divided people. It’s what invites the kind of further exploration that higher education is the right place to engage in. And if there’s a rule on the books that signals to a student that he or she might get punished if they protest, many of them are going to err on the side of caution and not engage in the kind of dialogue that we’d like to see more of.

Are there any specific efforts that you can point to, in terms of your philanthropy, that have elevated civil discourse, or attempted to?

One program I point to is a program at Brown University and it’s called the Janus Forum, named for the Roman two-faced god, and it’s basically a debate speaker series with speakers who are chosen by the students to represent opposing viewpoints on a given issue, and we’re supporting programs that attempt to replicate that model at dozens of schools around the country. And then we’re supporting programs that try to help young people build the skills necessary to engage in that dialogue, recognizing that it’s a difficult thing to do and it’s not something that we’re born being able to do easily, and in fact, in a lot of ways we’re wired for tribal conflict.

What are the two biggest threats to free expression on campus at the moment?

One is the increasing politicized skepticism towards speech on campus. … I’m deeply concerned when I hear people equate the prevalence of their particular ideas with whether or not a key institution should remain free to function as it does.

That’s why you see us speak out publicly against things like Turning Point USA’s Professor Watchlist or other tactics that exist to stifle or otherwise intimidate views on the basis of ideology. 

Two is the role of social media and the internet in speech. Not to say that I’m concerned about those platforms or those institutions, but just figuring out ways for people to burst out of their self-imposed echo chambers and filter bubbles that they’ve been able to isolate themselves within thanks to the myriad options available to them. … How might we educate young people and equip people with the skills necessary to go out there and experience the different — recognizing that that’s psychologically and sociologically difficult, and it’s much easier to just retreat back into your bubble, where you’re surrounded by people who are just like you? That’s a squishier challenge, and one that we’re committed to finding productive ways to address.

Michael Vasquez is a senior investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter @MrMikeVasquez, or email him at

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