Since 1999, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has fought for freedom of speech at our colleges and universities. This week, FIRE released the results of a survey, which it commissioned with the education news and opinion site, RealClearEducation. The survey is notable for its large sample, nearly 20,000 students at 55 four-year universities. In comparison, a Gallup/Knight survey released this spring sampled only 3,319.
Yet the survey contains some familiar bad news. Here it is in brief.
First, majorities of students oppose their schools allowing outside speakers to promote certain ideas. These range from the idea that Black Lives Matter is a hate group—75 percent of students oppose opening campus to a speaker who says that—to the idea that all white people are racist—74 percent oppose admitting a speaker who carries that message. This result is reminiscent of a 2017 Cato Institute survey, in which surprisingly high percentages of students supported laws against saying offensive things in public about white people and the police. Then and now, Republicans express more support for free speech than their Democratic counterparts, but both the would-be suppressors of speech and the viewpoints targeted for suppression cross ideological boundaries.
Second, and in agreement with other findings, too many students, more Republicans than Democrats, report censoring themselves or feeling pressure to censor themselves. I don’t worry that 60 percent of students report ever—as in, at least once—having felt they could not express their opinion because of “how students, a professor, or the administration would respond.” I’d expect the figure to be higher. Who, student or non-student, has never felt that way? But it’s troubling that more than 20 percent of students and nearly 30 percent of Republican students feel “very uncomfortable” about disagreeing in public with their professors. It’s natural to worry about offending an authority figure who gives you a grade at the end of the semester. But it’s the job of professors, who often teach controversial material, to draw students out. More encouraging, however, only 8 percent of students report feeling “very uncomfortable” talking politics with their classmates.
Not everything in the FIRE survey supports the conventional notion that our problem is ideologically monolithic campuses in which left-wing activists and their administrative enablers silence conservatives. South Carolina’s Clemson University is one of just three campuses in the mix that has a small majority of Trump-approving students. But respondents there are a little more likely than those at Harvard or Chicago, which have relatively few conservative students, to want to bar speakers who maintain that “some racial groups are less intelligent than others.” And they are much more likely to want to bar speakers who maintain that “Christianity has a negative influence on society.”
Perhaps where conservatives and liberals both have critical mass, more kinds of speech draw impassioned opposition. Similarly, if you think that white students feel bullied by a coalition of minority groups presiding over an ideological monoculture, you may be surprised that they are less likely than non-white students, and far less likely than black students, to say that “it is difficult to have an open and honest conversation about race.”
I doubt the value of a ranking system derived mainly from a single survey snapshot. But I won’t complain that my alma mater, the University of Chicago comes out on top. Indeed, despite its strong left-liberal lean, it comes in third when conservatives alone are considered. At the risk of taking my Maroons down a peg, however, I’m perplexed by that result.
When ranked by conservatives, the University of Chicago is ranked 46th of 55 schools in “self-expression,” or the extent to which students feel able to share their perspective at the college. It ranks 40th in “openness,” the extent to which students think that discussion about controversial matters is possible on campus. Even at Chicago, a school known for crafting and regularly reaffirming the “Chicago Statement” on free expression championed by FIRE and used as a model by numerous institutions, there is plenty of work to do.