Former university presidents gather for Champions of Higher Education meeting

Over a dozen members of PEN America’s Champions of Higher Education initiative joined us in Washington, D.C. last week.


PEN America was joined by 13 former college and university presidents for a summit last week to discuss legislative assaults on higher education and what academics and their allies can do to fight back.

The former presidents, who are part of PEN America’s Champions of Higher Education initiative, met in Washington, D.C. on Thursday to strategize around educational gag orders and attacks on the autonomy of higher education. Speakers included Jeremy C. Young, Freedom to Learn program director at PEN America, Larry Isaak, former chancellor of the North Dakota University system, and Richard Guarasci, former president of Wagner College. 

“We came out of this meeting energized and ready to defend higher education,” said Young, who oversees PEN America’s research and advocacy on censorship in higher education. 

Isaak shared his experiences helping to defeat legislation in his native North Dakota, where his advocacy was part of the push to defeat a bill that would have significantly weakened tenure protections for faculty at two universities in the state. As part of his advocacy, Isaak warned lawmakers that the bill would make universities subject to political influence, and could cause them to lose accreditation, which would make students ineligible for federal financial aid, among other things.

Guarasci reflected on several recent media appearances, including an op-ed he recently published in the Staten Island Observer, sharing insights into how to make the case for higher education to broad audiences.

The move to make American universities more like those in controlled societies is downright un-American and unpatriotic,” Guarasci wrote. “Educational censorship hurts everyday Americans just as much as university professors.”

The Champions of Higher Education initiative launched in 2023 with initial collaboration from Campus Compact, and has since recruited over 240 former college presidents, chancellors, and system heads, representing all 50 states in addition to DC, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Members of the nonpartisan coalition have since published op-eds in the Tampa Bay Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, USA Today, and over 25 other outlets in defense of the freedom to learn.

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