A university should be a place where students can be exposed to new ideas, where they can engage freely in debate and discussion. But do college students really feel free to speak their minds on campus? Newly released College Free Speech Rankings show that, at most colleges, the answer is no.
RealClearEducation launched the College Free Speech Rankings, with an interactive website, so parents and students can see how schools they’re interested in stack up.
The rankings are based on a survey of nearly 20,000 students at 55 schools across the country. The survey reveals some startling facts. Almost 20% of students say that using violence to stop an unwanted speech or event is in some cases acceptable. Among Ivy League students, 36% said that it was “always” or “sometimes” acceptable to shout down a speaker one doesn’t like.
Self-censorship is also a major problem. Sixty percent of college students say they have kept quiet due to fear of how others would respond. Among conservative students, that number is 72%.
Colleges have become perilous places to express unpopular ideas. Professors and students fear being shouted down, shunned, or, in some cases, fired or expelled. This has a chilling effect on the classroom.
Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University, frames the problem this way: “At my university we have a ‘bias response line.’ Students are encouraged to anonymously report anyone who says anything that offends them. So, as a professor, I no longer take risks; I must teach to the most easily offended student in the class. I therefore avoid saying or doing anything provocative. My classes are less fun and engaging.”
The University of Chicago received the highest score in the College Free Speech Rankings. Both liberal and conservative students there say that the administration supports tolerance for a wide range of views and opinions. Rounding out the top five in the rankings are Kansas State, Texas A&M, UCLA, and Arizona State.
Most of the schools in the top 10 are large public universities. Only one Ivy League school, Brown University, made it into that group.
DePauw University came in last in the College Free Speech Rankings, with both liberal and conservative students rating the school poorly. DePauw had the highest percentage of students who self-censored, a whopping 71%.
Coming in at No. 52 out of the 55 schools surveyed, Dartmouth received the worst ranking among Ivy League members. Rounding out the bottom five were Syracuse, Louisiana State University, and the University of Texas at Austin, which ranked only slightly above DePauw.
The bottom 10 in the rankings includes seven private universities and two Ivy League schools.
RealClearEducation developed the College Free Speech Rankings in partnership with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a leading advocacy group for free speech and academic freedom. Data research firm College Pulse conducted the survey that forms the basis of the rankings.
At 80% of the schools included in the rankings, liberalism is the dominant political ideology among students. Students say that racial issues are the most challenging topics to discuss.
Chicago’s top ranking is no coincidence. University President Robert J. Zimmer has taken a proactive approach to defending free speech, releasing the influential “Chicago Statement” in defense of freedom of expression on campus, which has been adopted by dozens of other universities.
The rankings demonstrate that academic administrators have real power to create a culture of free speech and open inquiry. Students who attend colleges where their political opinions line up with the majority naturally say that they are more comfortable sharing their beliefs. The University of Chicago has one of the most liberal student bodies of any school in the rankings. Seventy-four percent of students there self-identify as liberals, while only 12% identify as conservatives. Yet both liberal and conservative students rate the university relatively highly in the area of free speech.
Still, even Chicago has plenty of room for improvement. It won the top spot with an overall score of only 64.19 out of a possible 100 on the scale developed for these rankings. That shows just how poorly most other schools are doing.
The College Free Speech Rankings paint a clear picture of the speech crisis on America’s colleges and universities. Most schools are failing to protect open inquiry, academic freedom, and free speech. The good news is that now, for the first time, students and parents have a tool they can use to find out which colleges and universities are doing a better job of living up to those ideals.
Nathan Harden is the education editor for RealClearPolitics and was part of the team that developed the 2020 College Free Speech Rankings. Twitter @NathanHarden