When it comes to protecting free speech, America’s colleges and universities are earning a failing grade. That’s the upshot of a comprehensive new study that asked almost 20,000 students at 55 schools how tolerant and open to controversial ideas their campuses are.
The University of Chicago received the highest score – just 64.2 points out of a total of 100; DePauw University was at the bottom, with 44.2 points. The University of Arkansas, the University of Minnesota, UC-Berkeley and Princeton were bunched in the middle with about 53 points.
Even accounting for grade inflation, that still smells like an F.
The College Free Speech Rankings generated by the survey – which was commissioned by RealClearEducation (RCE) in partnership with The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) – are significant because they offer the first-ever national ranking of free speech based on student perceptions. Research firm College Pulse conducted the survey that forms the basis of the rankings.
RCE and FIRE, which ranked the schools, based 80% percent of each school’s score on a series of questions that measured two key aspects of free speech: tolerance for allowing controversial speakers on campus and students’ responses when asked how free they feel to hold open conversations about controversial topics such as abortion, transgender rights, and racial justice. The remaining 20% of the score was based on the freedom students feel to express their opinions, their perception of the administration’s support for free speech and FIRE’s rating of each school’s official policies toward free speech.
An online dashboard provides in-depth results for each school, including comments from students about their campus climate. It also allows users to compare the results for different schools as well as to sort the results according to various criteria, including: rankings by liberals, rankings by conservatives, and rankings by women and by men and by racial minorities. It even allows users to rank schools by the proportion of students who approve, or disapprove, of President Trump.
The most telling and ominous finding is that students may be more directly responsible than administrators and professors for quelling speech. Every school surveyed earned a higher overall score for administrative support for free speech than its final, overall tally. The top-rated University of Chicago, for example, received a score of 91.6 in that category, but a 64.2 overall score.
By contrast, every school received a lower score on questions measuring the freedom students felt to express their point of view than their overall total. The University of Chicago earned a 55.8 on this measure. This suggests that students may be more concerned about blowback from their peers than from their instructors.
Specifically, 60% of students surveyed recalled at least one time when they did not share their perspective for fear of how others would respond. This muzzling starts early, as 58% of first-year students said they had silenced themselves.
Self-identified conservatives said they were more likely to self-censor (72%) than self-described liberals (55%).
In addition, 42% of students said it was acceptable for their schools to punish speakers who make “offensive” statements. Although 82% of students said it was never appropriate to use violence to protest a controversial speaker, 17% said it can be acceptable.
On one level, the survey seems to align with a broader, social-media-driven movement in the United States where the establishment seems more supportive of speech than the general population – or at least large numbers of Millennials and Gen Z members. During the last few decades, for example, the Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings that have reinforced protections for speech even as Twitter mobs and an emerging cancel culture have worked to punish views some find offensive.
Similarly, this survey suggests that many school administrators and professors are demonstrating a greater commitment to free speech than their students. But that raises the questions: How, why and where are students learning to question this bedrock American value?
It is doubtful the homes in which they were raised are more radical than their schools. It seems more likely that our educational institutions – starting with elementary school and continuing on through college – are failing to foster respect for free and open inquiry and expression.
The College Free Speech Rankings should serve as a wake-up call that they must do better.