Colleges have a free speech “problem.” From high-profile instances at Missouri, Yale, and Middlebury, to more recent events at UC Berkeley and Sarah Lawrence College, we’ve seen college leaders allow the campus left to harass speakers, silence debate, and drive conservative views and values from the academy.
This state of affairs is one reason why InsideHigherEd’s annual survey of college and university chief academic officers has been especially useful. Since 2015, this survey has been the only annual snapshot that captures what senior college administrators think about trigger warnings, free speech, and academic freedom — and thus the only reliable way to gauge changes in their actions or attitudes. In light of the contretemps of the past year, many were eager to see what campus leaders had to say.
Unfortunately, in the latest survey, released last week, those questions had been neatly scrubbed from the survey. Yep, one of the nation’s primary news outlets covering higher education decided that now would be a propitious time to stop asking about academic freedom and free speech on campus.
What might appear to be simply a curious case of bad timing is emblematic of a larger problem with the higher ed-industrial complex — a tendency to sweep under the rug those developments which raise uncomfortable questions about the orthodoxies and agendas pervading campus culture. This dynamic was on full display last fall in the lawsuit that Students for Fair Admissions has mounted against Harvard’s admissions policies, when all the quarreling factions of academe responded by finding a way to link arms in the cause of race-based admissions.
The survey did find time to ask whether conservative and liberal students feel welcome in classrooms on their campus. Four percent of provosts expressed reservations about whether liberal students feel welcome; 12 percent expressed concerns about whether conservative students do. Given that surveys of students have indicated that half of them report having censored themselves in class for fear of what will be said in response, this kind of question provides a useful, sometimes laughable, window into the self-serving bubble that campus mandarins occupy.
In prior years, the survey had asked substantive questions relating to academic freedom, if guest speakers on campus are welcome to offer a range of political viewpoints, and if conservative academics and public figures are treated with respect on campus. It also asked if students and academics respect free speech, if colleges should interfere with the invitations to outside speakers extended by student groups or faculty, and if shouting down speakers poses a threat to academic freedom. The results tended to suggest there are real grounds for concern — over half of provosts, for instance, responded that free speech rights are either “threatened” or “very threatened” on college campuses. Even when questions generate self-serving responses, the results can be unintentionally revealing.
All of this begs the question as to why these questions were excised from this year’s survey. Free-speech concerns on campus have certainly not abated, making these queries a useful and timely barometer of what campus leaders are thinking and how they are responding. Regardless of the rationale, the decision suggests an unfortunate casualness about the burning question of what it really means for campuses to welcome and support the free and unfettered exchange of ideas. With more Americans than ever saying that higher education is headed in the wrong direction and polls expressing concerns about the state of free speech on campus, this is the wrong time to opt for the comforts of ignorance.