Phi Beta Cons

Exploring Free-Market Ideas


A college campus should be a place of academic freedom — an environment that encourages students to explore new topics, develop critical-thinking skills, and learn how to communicate ideas effectively. Colleges have drifted far from the ideal of academic freedom, but in the marketplace of ideas, some nonprofits are stepping in to supplement the education students receive on campus today. 

Two controversies on campus during the last election highlight the drift. Professor Sharon Sweet, a math professor at Brevard Community College in Florida, “strongly encouraged” some students and required others to “sign a pledge card that stated, ‘I pledge to vote for President Obama and Democrats up and down the ticket,’” according to a recent report from the college. Sweet’s actions caused students to feel intimidated and fear their grades may suffer if they refused to sign the cards. Brevard announced that its president will recommend to the board of trustees that Sweet be dismissed. At another campus, the University of Wisconsin, students who wanted to hear President Barack Obama speak on campus in October were required to “pledge their support for the president in order to get a ticket. The president’s campaign was able to advertise on the university’s website and secure contact information from students interested in attending.

As my colleague Sita Slavov wrote, a typical American student’s day-to-day classroom education comes from an overwhelmingly liberal faculty. Research by Santa Clara University Professor Daniel Klein showed that Democrats outnumber Republican professors by a ratio of at least seven to one in the humanities and social sciences. Also, a study published in 2005, authored by George Mason University Professor Robert Lichter, Smith College Professor Stanley Rothman, and University of Toronto Professor Neil Nevitte, found that “72 percent of those teaching at American universities and colleges are liberal and 15 percent are conservative.” Yet the liberal policies espoused by many professors are hurting the job prospects of college students. Today’s graduates face high unemployment and underemployment, often in addition to student loans. In order to better understand their economic situation, and ultimately to understand how different public policies influence our economy, many students are turning to nonprofits for summer seminars, online courses, and other programs to explore the benefits of freer markets.

The Institute for Humane Studies and the Foundation for Economic Education host summer seminars on a variety of topics. Marginal Revolution University offers online courses taught by professors Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok, supported by the Mercatus Center and George Mason University. At AEI, we are excited about the 2013 Summer Institute, a month-long, fully funded opportunity for 25 students to learn the principles of public-policy analysis and discuss liberty, individual opportunity, and free enterprise. Many students must travel outside of their college campus to find a place where different ideas are presented. Because students cannot trust their colleges and universities to provide a true marketplace of ideas, nonprofits have stepped in to fill that void. We can only hope that our campuses will gradually move toward the tradition of true academic freedom as today’s students — who will one day be professors themselves — benefit from programs offered outside of the academy.

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