As stated in Framing Our Future, Wake Forest University’s Strategic Framework, the University is defined, in part, by a commitment to teach and model the importance of the democratic process, civil discourse, and dialogue across differences. Wake Forest will become a catalyst for good in society by extending this commitment into our third century and becoming a recognized national model for graduating leaders with integrity and courage, across disciplines and professions, who embrace evidence-based debate, open dialogue and critical thinking.
The importance of dialogue and free expression to our academic environment is woven throughout this formal testament of who Wake Forest is, and who we strive to become.
Wake Forest enjoys a strong tradition of freedom of expression and academic freedom.
In the 1920s, Wake Forest’s administration and trustees defended the rights of its faculty to teach the theory of evolution, staking a claim in opposition to the university’s founding organization and some of its most dedicated supporters at the time (Washington Post, 1979). In 1977, Wake Forest students invited Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt to campus in acknowledgement of his entrepreneurial example and fight for first amendment rights (Wake Forest Magazine, 2019). This decision was protested by the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, prompting President Scales to defend the University’s “open platform” policy. Members of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention attempted to intervene in University operations later that year by protesting use of National Science Foundation funds to build a greenhouse and animal facility on campus. These controversies cemented a shared commitment of the Board of Trustees and the University administration, which was acknowledged by the American Association of University Professors with the prestigious Alexander Meiklejohn Award. When accepting the award, Scales said Wake Forest would be “a fortress of independent thought” (WF Magazine).
Wake Forest prioritizes freedom of expression and academic freedom while also recognizing that teaching, learning, research, and service happen most effectively in a safe environment. We ask community members to take seriously the responsibilities that come with the right of free expression and to care for others in their exercise of free expression and academic freedom.
The Statement on Expression
The Undergraduate Code of Conduct (2023 interim) includes a Statement on Expression broadly governing student life.
Wake Forest University is committed to diversity, inclusion, and the spirit of Pro Humanitate, and it strives to provide an environment conducive to understanding, fostering, and nurturing the values of mutual respect, dignity, responsibility, and open communication. Free speech and peaceable assembly are basic requirements of a university as a center for free inquiry and the search for knowledge and insight.
The University is committed to providing all students the right to openly dissent and to speak, write, listen, challenge, protest, and learn. Though the vibrant exchange of ideas may become contentious, such interactions, as part of the University’s educational mission, can lead to changed perspectives, advanced knowledge, and informed action.
The rights afforded to students in this statement have limitations and involve a concurrent obligation on the part of students to maintain on the campus an atmosphere conducive to scholarly pursuits and to respect the rights of all individuals, including the right to be free of harassment or other behavior that diminishes a person’s or group’s dignity and which is prohibited under the Code of Conduct. Moreover, the exercise of these rights may not disrupt or obstruct the functions of the University or imminently threaten such disruption or obstruction.
Balance in the Community
As stated above, these rights come in the context of a responsibility to maintain a balance between freedom of expression and the orderly conduct of our shared community life.
Free speech and peaceable assembly are basic requirements of the University as a center for free inquiry and the search for knowledge and insight. These rights involve a concurrent obligation on the part of all members of the University to maintain on the campus an atmosphere conducive to scholarly pursuits and to respect the rights of all individuals. It is a violation of University policy for a member of the faculty, staff, or student body to prevent the orderly conduct of a University function or activity, such as lectures, meetings, interviews, ceremonies, and public events, or to block the legitimate activities of any person on the campus or in any University building or facility. Activities which exceed these guidelines, if persisted in after due warning, will subject the participants to disciplinary and, if need be, legal action. The University cannot be content merely to tolerate inquiry and discussion; it has an obligation to protect them. (Faculty Handbook, 2023, p. 36)
Wake Forest also has explicit protections for academic freedom. Faculty are the group around whom the concept of academic freedom is historically built, and so there is also a statement on academic freedom in the Faculty Handbook:
The teacher is entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the performance of other academic duties, but research for pecuniary return shall be based upon a written understanding with the University.
The teacher is entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing the relevant subject, but the teacher should be careful not to introduce into teaching controversial matter which has no relation to the subject.The teacher in Wake Forest University is a citizen, a member of a learned profession, and a representative of an educational institution. When a teacher speaks or writes as a citizen, the teacher will be free from censorship or discipline by the University, but the teacher’s special position in the community imposes special obligations. As a person of learning and as an educational representative, a teacher should remember that the public may judge the profession and the University by the teacher’s utterances. Hence the teacher should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that the teacher is not a spokesman for the University. (Faculty Handbook, 2023, pp. 19–20)
The Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility (CAFR), a standing committee of the Wake Forest Faculty Senate, is composed of twelve tenured faculty members of the rank of full professor: two members elected by each School of the University.
CAFR is a standing committee of the Faculty Senate whose members may serve as members of panels for proceedings for the dismissal of a tenured faculty member. The Committee will provide an annual report to the Faculty Senate and the President of the University in sufficient detail to inform them of the nature of the outcome of the Committee’s work while preserving confidential information.
In September 2023, President Wente and Provost Gillespie created a task force charged with researching the status quo of Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom statements and policies at Wake Forest.
- Matt Clifford, Dean of Students
- Mary Crosby, Associate Counsel
- Katy Harriger, Chair of the Committee of Collegiate Senators; Professor of Politics & International Affairs
- Matthew Phillips (Chair), Associate Provost for Strategic Initiatives; Teaching Professor of Law & Ethics
- Kenneth Townsend, Executive Director of Leadership and Character in the Professional Schools; Teaching Professor of Law
The task force’s work will culminate in:
- Research analysis and recommendations on next steps, with supporting rationale
- If part of the process, present how the statements might be strengthened, along with policies that might need updating to ensure institutional alignment
- If recommending new statements are warranted, suggest potential Phase 2 process and Task Force composition.
The task force’s efforts are ongoing, with early commitments to maintaining Wake Forest’s distinctive focus on the balance between free expression and civility in community interactions.