For the past several months I have been working with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni on their objective of improving the generally poor status of free speech on the campuses of our colleges and universities. As I have previously noted, the gold standard for policy in this area is generally considered to be the statement adopted by the University of Chicago in 2015, a key excerpt of which reads as follows:
The University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments, not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose….To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.
Sounds like July 4th and apple pie stuff, right? One would think so, but in the five years since its adoption at Chicago, after considerable work by advocates, only 74 American colleges and universities have adopted anything close to this protective policy. To be fair, a number of prestigious institutions have adopted such policy, but large numbers have so far resisted, which doesn’t bode well for the prevailing attitudes by faculty, administration, or students on many hundreds of campuses.
So it was interesting to note this past week the results of a new study that surveyed almost 20,000 students at 55 colleges and asked how tolerant and open to controversial ideas their campuses are. This survey, called the College Free Speech Rankings, was conducted jointly by RealClearEducation and The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and, according to reporting by The Wall Street Journal, provides the first ever national ranking of free speech based on student perceptions. To no surprise, the top-rated school was the University of Chicago, but surprisingly across the board, every school surveyed earned a higher overall score for administrative support for free speech than its final overall rating, indicating that every school received a lower score on questions measuring the freedom students felt to express their point of view. This suggests that students may feel more intimidated by reactions from their peers than from the faculty members or administrators, not an encouraging finding. Obviously, we have a lot of work to do, and it appears that there needs to be more focus on the secondary schools that supply these students!