Education

College Leaders Think Free Speech Is at Risk Everywhere — Except on Their Own Campuses

Protesters at Harvard University disrupt a speech by Betsy DeVos, September 2017. (Reuters photo: Mary Schwaim)
A new survey sheds light on a troubling mindset.

America’s colleges and universities are experiencing an intellectual crisis. While this is usually cast in terms of “free speech,” that is only a symptom of a deeper sickness. The root issue is whether universities remain true to their foundational mission or whether they are no longer invested in safeguarding free inquiry and welcoming heterodox thought. A new survey of college and university leaders offers a revealing look at how the mandarins of higher education view this crossroads. It offers little grounds for optimism.

Conducted by Gallup, Inside Higher Ed’s 2018 Survey of College and University Academic Officers is a representative nationwide sample of 516 campus leaders across 277 public institutions, 223 private institutions, and 16 for-profit institutions. In plowing through the results, it’s hard to escape the sense that those at the helm of the nation’s higher-education institutions suffer a case of willful blindness — and that, worse, they seem collectively sure that the buck stops somewhere else.

For instance, only 41 percent of college and university leaders said that free-speech rights are secure on the nation’s campuses, and only 36 percent said free speech is secure in the United States as a whole. Yet when asked about their campuses, fully 80 percent insisted that free-speech rights are secure. In other words, campus leaders see threats to free speech everywhere — except on their own campuses.

On every question about the campus experiences of liberals and conservatives, however, even these campus leaders report that disparities exist. For instance, regarding their own campuses, only 68 percent of campus leaders say that politically conservative students feel generally welcome in classrooms. This bears repeating: Barely two thirds of campus administrators report that conservatives feel welcome — even as 80 percent insist that free speech is secure. (Meanwhile, just three percent say that liberal students feel unwelcome in campus classrooms.)

On this count, the results echoed other recent findings. For instance, a national survey conducted last year by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and YouGov found that Democratic students are somewhat more likely than Republican students to say they are comfortable sharing their views in classrooms and on campus, and that very liberal students are substantially more likely than very conservative students to say they feel comfortable speaking up in classrooms and on campus.

When it comes to campus speakers, 89 percent of provosts say that liberal academics and speakers are treated with respect when they visit campus; just 78 percent say the same for conservative speakers. Sixty percent of campus leaders say they are concerned about the heckler’s veto, agreeing that “those who interrupt, shout down or otherwise attempt to disrupt campus speakers represent a threat to academic freedom.” (That four in ten see no threat is itself troubling.) Far more problematic, just three in ten leaders think that colleges should punish students who disrupt speakers, and just 29 percent agree that “colleges should not interfere with invitations to outside speakers extended by student groups or faculty members.”

These results provide little to suggest that campus leaders are really grappling with — or even recognizing — the intellectual crisis on campus.

In fact, when it comes to free speech, a major concern for today’s college leaders is that right-wing America is picking on professors. Over half of campus leaders believe that “professors are being unfairly attacked by conservative websites and politicians.” In a revealing lapse, Inside Higher Ed never even bothered to ask whether campus leaders think professors are similarly maligned by liberal websites and politicians. It would be interesting to learn whether the oversight occurred because pollsters think there are so few conservative faculty that it’s not worth asking the question, or because they don’t think that liberals engage in unfair attacks.

These results provide little to suggest that campus leaders are really grappling with — or even recognizing — the intellectual crisis on campus. Indeed, so long as college and university administrators think free-speech rights are safe on their campuses, but see a threat from Americans using their First Amendment rights to critique asinine actions, tweets, and broadsides by unabashed ideologues, it’s hard to see the path forward towards intellectually vibrant and inclusive campuses. For institutions to regain their historic mission as bastions of inquiry, free thought, and the untrammeled pursuit of truth, a sea change in leadership might just be required.

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