(NEW YORK)— Today, PEN America launched a new initiative alongside more than a hundred former higher education presidents and system heads to defend higher education against a barrage of state legislation and policies that seek to restrict campus free expression and college and university autonomy.

The new effort, “Champions of Higher Education,” counts among its ranks 118 former college and university presidents and chancellors committed to rallying public support against political and legislative attempts to silence discussion of core issues, politicize curricula, and exacerbate campus divisions. The number of former higher education leaders involved grows larger each day. PEN America brought together this initiative in collaboration with Campus Compact.

United by a shared vision of American higher education as an essential pillar of democracy, the former campus leaders represent colleges and universities large and small across the nation, from red states and blue states, and from every region of the country – 36 states in all. They include a former Republican congressman and lieutenant governor, a former chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a former Undersecretary of Education and two former Assistant Secretaries of Education, and a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Following today’s launch, the leaders will coordinate an intensive national and local communications and coalition-building effort through speaking engagements in communities where they have influence and by drawing on their relationships with legislators and business, legal, military, medical, and cultural leaders to activate powerful new advocates to fight political interference and government overreach on campus.

“College campuses are the essential training grounds where the next generation is equipped with the tools to inhabit, strengthen and sustain our democracy,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. “But our nation’s proud tradition of academic excellence has been undermined in recent years by threats to campus free expression emanating from both the left and the right. Today, free expression on our campuses is under siege by both an escalating penchant for censoriousness on the left and an organized political campaign on the right bent on undermining the intellectual freedom and independence of America’s higher education system. We need champions across every sector determined to uphold free speech on campus. No group is better suited to take on that challenge than this extraordinary collection of higher education leaders.”

“The launch of the Champions of Higher Education should put the censors on notice,” said Jeremy C. Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America and lead organizer of the initiative. “Higher education is not defenseless. It has its champions, all across the country, who have committed to support campus free expression and institutional autonomy, and to promote an affirmative vision of higher education as one of the crowning achievements of American democracy. Their efforts serve to combat the rising tide of censorious legislation and to restore America’s commitment to intellectual freedom in higher education.”

“As former campus and system leaders, each of us understands that educational independence and freedom of expression and thought are the lifeblood of our higher education system,” said Richard Guarasci, president emeritus of Wagner College. “The legislative efforts to politicize our classrooms and chill discussion of our nation’s history and enduring challenges are an existential threat to the mission and integrity of the entire higher education sector – a threat we pledge to meet on behalf of the sector as a whole.”

“Today, college administrators and educators are under relentless political pressure, forced to choose between their commitment to academic freedom and their jobs,” said Brian Murphy, president emeritus of De Anza College. “As former college and university leaders, the Champions of Higher Education will do everything in our power to help free campuses from these political constraints and ensure that every student is empowered with the gifts of knowledge, discovery, and robust debate that our higher education institutions provide.”

“I am proud to endorse the Champions of Higher Education initiative,” said Bobbie Laur, President of Campus Compact. “This project had its origins in conversations convened jointly by PEN America and Campus Compact, and I am thrilled that this group of former presidents and system heads will be working together in the coming months to combat efforts to censor learning and restrict free expression on campuses and ensure that civic education and engagement remain centered and possible.”

You can read more about the Champions of Higher Education Initiative and view the full list of signatories by visiting pen.org/champions-statement. The initiative is still recruiting former presidents and system heads to join its ranks; if you are interested in participating, contact Jeremy C. Young at [email protected]

In launching this nonpartisan initiative, PEN America is grateful for the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Lumina Foundation, and the Henry R. Luce Foundation. The work of the Champions of Higher Education does not reflect the views or positions of these foundations.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057