Vanderbilt University Chancellor Daniel Diermeier participated in a conversation titled “The Path Forward for Academic Freedom in Higher Ed” as part of the world-renowned Aspen Ideas Festival on June 29. Also featuring Gabrielle Starr, president of Pomona College, and Dan Porterfield, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, the panel set out to explore the “twin ideals of open inquiry and free expression” as well as higher education’s unique role in advancing these forces.
“Universities do many things, but at their core they are committed to transformative education and pathbreaking research,” Diermeier said during the conversation. “To achieve these goals, we must create an environment of maximum freedom: where people can explore diverse ideas and points of view and take them in many different directions.”
The conversation covered a range of topics, including strategies for creating open forums, the evolving dynamics of polarization on American campuses, the history of speaker controversies and censorship, and the implications that social media and misinformation may have on civil discourse. Diermeier also discussed the mission behind the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy and the importance of studying the value of open and productive debate through a historic lens.
“Throughout history, [our nation has] been able to overcome big things by working through difficulties and by finding the compromises that weren’t there before,” Diermeier said. He added that the Unity Project seeks to illuminate these examples and that universities—when careful and intentional—can serve as a model for “restoring the fabric of democracy.”
Diermeier also reinforced the benefits of open forums and principled neutrality, the two pillars of Vanderbilt’s overall approach to protecting freedom of expression. These comments echoed several points he made earlier this spring as a speaker at a public hearing hosted by the Danish Parliament regarding the value and practice of free speech at universities.
Following his remarks to the Danish Parliament, leaders from the University of Southern Denmark and the University of Copenhagen invited Diermeier to speak at their respective institutions in early June on the importance of free expression and open forum on college campuses.
Founded in 2005, the Aspen Ideas Festival is an extension of the Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit with the stated goal of helping to realize a free, just and equitable society. Past attendees and speakers have included public officials, artists, entrepreneurs, scientists, economists, business executives and visionary leaders across sectors.