University of Chicago no longer #1 in free speech rankings

September 21, 2021 • 2:05 pm

For a long time the University of Chicago has been #1 among all rated American colleges and university’s in the free-speech ranking of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education).

I’ve been beefing for over a year about my school’s unwillingness to enforce its own speech rules, though, by allowing departments to make official pronouncements on politics, morality, and ideology—an explicit violation of the Kalven Report. This is one of our foundational principles along with our Principles of Free Expression, which have been adopted by more than fifty enlightened schools. (See my reports on U of C’s violations and about Kalven here.)

Now, and very sadly, the University of Chicago has fallen to second place in Freedom of Speech, behind Claremont-McKenna College in California. Mind you, we still get the approved “green light” overall, and we’re not that far behind Claremont-McKenna (they get 72.7 out of 100 points; we get 70.43), and this is out of 154 ranked schools.

I’m also sure that my beefing had nothing to do with this change, though they may have taken into account Chicago’s violations of Kalven. But it’s always been a selling point for our school to proclaim itself #1 in free speech, as there’s a group of parents and students who—mirabile dictulike that! Perhaps our new President, Paul Alivisatos, a chemist who was executive vice chancellor and provost at UC Berkeley, and who began his term September 1, can pull us back to the top spot.

For your interest, here are the top ten schools for free speech, as well as the bottom ten, who deserve raspberries. (You can see the data by clicking on the school at the link I just gave.)

  1. Claremont-McKenna University
  2. The University of Chicago
  3. University of New Hampshire (Main Campus)
  4. Emory University
  5. Florida State University
  6. Purdue University (Main Campus)
  7. University of Maryland, College Park
  8. University of California, Los Angeles
  9. University of Arizona
  10. The College of William and Mary.

I’m chuffed that I taught at two of these (#2 and #7) and got my undergraduate degree from #10.

Here are the big losers:

WARNING RATING (no number but a bad sign.  Pepperdine University
148. Bates College
149. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
WARNING RATING: St Louis University
150. Boston College
151. Wake Forest University
152. Louisiana State University
153. Marquette University
WARNING RATING: Baylor University
154. DePauw University (score: 50.8/100)

Each college’s evaluation also has some student comments; here’s one from the University of Chicago, but it wasn’t my comment as I didn’t teach that year.

“I am religious and in a few science courses Professors have made direct statements claiming that religion is equivalent to fairytales those who believe it are stupid and that science disproves religion. I did not feel as though I could argue with them on this despite my disagreement with their opinion.”
– Class of 2022
To be sure, this sounds dubious to me, as I don’t know anybody at the U of C who would make a statement like that to an undergraduate class. But it is possible. And if it happened, the professor should have kept his/her mouth shut.

20 thoughts on “University of Chicago no longer #1 in free speech rankings

  1. “To be sure, this sounds dubious to me, as I don’t know anybody at the U of C who would make a statement like that to an undergraduate class” – I don’t doubt our host is correct. Nevertheless, the claims that “religion is equivalent to fairytales those who believe it are stupid and that science disproves religion” is true, of course. (Apparently, commas are the work of the devil.)

    That the complainant adds, “I did not feel as though I could argue with them on this despite my disagreement with their opinion” puts their own problem more eloquently than I can. It was allegedly in science classes, but I’ll drop it there…!

    1. That bit where university professors are telling students “those who believe (religion) are stupid” is almost certainly invention, though possibly unintended on the student’s part. It could be religion, or pseudoscience, or any area which the believer secretly recognizes is a bit strange and a bit shaky, approached by skeptical analysis. “You’re stupid” is often what they think they heard, since if they weren’t on the believing side, that’s probably what they’d think.

    2. Really? I say that (fairy tales, the religious are dotards) as OFTEN as I can get away with it. I’d tell little kids if I knew any. Lucky I’m a writer/attorney/midnight smoker not a professor!

  2. I will note that I have had academic ties with several of these, one in the upper list and two in the lower.

    “this sounds dubious to me, as I don’t know anybody at the U of C who would make a statement like that to an undergraduate class.”

    I can make several responses here, in the order I would guess (without basis, just my guess) most likely:

    a) the student my truly believe that such statements were made, even if they were not, either misunderstanding what was said, or misinterpreting based on prior beliefs. I’ve seen it, I have taught with people that have seen it or experienced the results, and I would suspect many readers here have as well.

    b) It was actually said, or word to that effect. Possibly with valid context, possibly not. I used to work with a physics instructor that would say such things, and then wonder why issues came up about it. I was present, on one occasion, when he told a student planning on chiropracty as a career what he thought of the “profession”. The follow up was unpleasant. I don’t think it had anything to do with his retirement two years later.

    c) the student could be making a conscious fabrication

    d) the student could be delusional

    I am curious which, if any, of these apply, but will probably never know

  3. I think department-wide declarations of political/ideological stances are extremely stifling of free speech. If you were a student taking a course on, say, The History of Civil Rights in the United States, that course was taught by a professor from the sociology department, and the sociology department put out a statement saying that the United States is a systemically racist country where all white people are privileged (especially white, “cis-het” men), would you be comfortable disagreeing with your professor when they made remarks about such things? Would you be comfortable disagreeing about anything if you were white? Wouldn’t you fear that your professor might view you in a poor light at the very least (which might affect their evaluation of you at the end of the semester, even if unconsciously, and thus lower your grade), and punish you directly with a reduction in your grade at most? Actually, at most, they could make a complaint to whatever administrative office claiming you made racist remarks.

    Such statements are a gross contravention of academic freedom for students. I’d say they contravene the idea of academic freedom for professors as well, as who wants to be the professor that doesn’t sign the statement? Who wants to be the professor whose every utterance, online post, syllabus, and entire history will be watched by hundreds or even thousands (if “activists” online get wind of the situation) of hawk-eyed warriors, often in an attempt to catch them with something to destroy them, however dubious that “something” might be?

  4. Dang, things ain’t lookin’ good for the Jesuits, with three schools — Boston College, St. Louie U, and Marquette — in the bottom ten. No surprise that Baylor’s flying funky colors for the Baptists.

    1. “No surprise that Baylor’s flying funky colors for the Baptists.”

      I gather that the same is true for the Baptist-affiliated Wake Forest “Demon Deacons.”

  5. In connection with free speech, one wonders what role the AAUP has played in these matters recently. Once upon a time, the AAUP was active in defense of academic freedom, and of professors subjected to unfair administrative persecution. However, in our time, I am not aware of any AAUP action in defense of Professor Peter Boghossian at Portland State, nor do FIRE’s accounts of recent faculty cancellations make mention of help from the AAUP. At the Univ. of Washington, the local AAUP chapter is instead busying itself with an academic variant of the once fashionable police abolition performance.
    In the outside world, the buzzphrase “defund the police” has been largely abandoned, as its toxicity for electoral candidates becomes obvious. But a residue of the buzz lingers in academe, under the verb “dismantle” instead of “defund”. The UW AAUP chapter, scrambling to catch up with what seemed to be a hot-dog fashion two years ago, has issued a pronunciamento to dismantle the campus police, using the oddly ungrammatical but wholly predictable verbiage copied below..

    “At its core, this movement to dismantle campus police is about addressing the racist dynamics of all policing that imperil BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) individuals and communities. Many people disproportionately experience police violence outside of, or in combination with, structural racism. We also know that police violence disproportionately affects people at multiple intersections of oppression, including race, immigration status, economic class, disabilities, housing status, gender, sexual orientation, and anti-capitalists, among others. The phrase “systematically marginalized communities” refers to the wide range and complexity of those endangered by the practices and expansion of campus police.”

  6. There are many just-so stories about student experience in universities like “my biology professor was telling the class that there was no God …”. They usually end up with some unlikely comeuppance. I also see claims along the lines of “Today my Post-Modernism lecturer told the class that there was no such thing as the truth and I asked ‘Is that true?'” I would not be surprised if people use student evaluations to insert such urban myths.

  7. I read the remarks for the lowest ranking University, DePauw and it did not seem to me that these were real examples of a lack of free speech. They seemed to be examples of people who found themselves in a political minority and did not feel comfortable voicing their own opinions. But doesn’t that happen to all of us at some time? I have often been in situations where everyone else was socialist and it felt uncomfortable telling people that I didn’t think socialism worked. So you either bite the bullet and say something or you find something else to talk about. That is not a lack of free speech. In my first job I was told I was jeopardising my job by reading a socialist newspaper in the lunchroom (even though I was not a socialist). In that case I took a stand and read it anyway, but if I had felt it was better to read it elsewhere I don’t think I would have felt it a free speech issue.

    Was there ever a time and place in human history where people have the kind of free speech they are talking about – where everybody feels completely comfortable expressing any opinion in any situation and only ever get support and encouragement from all around?

    If so I would like to know where and when.

  8. And I note that in Pepperdine there is a liberal who feels he can’t speak up because most of the students are Republicans and a Republican who feels he can’t speak up because most of the students are liberals. Maybe they should both just test the hypothesis and speak up.

  9. But there is one thing that strikes me as strange about all of this talk. Back when I went to university there were these things called “assignments”, “lectures”, “exams”, “study” and so on, which were all time consuming and bloody hard work and left no time at all for discussion of the social and political issues of the day. I don’t know if my university ever invited speakers but if they did then I can’t imagine when there would have been time to go and see them.

    If the modern university life leaves all this free time for gabbing about social issues and politics and they still come away with a good education then they should count themselves fortunate.

    1. No, you missed out on the social (including political) side…

      And even us Engineers/Maths/Scientist types have speakers, film meets and union issues.

  10. Well this is disappointing; I graduated from one of the schools in the bottom 10. It wasn’t like that back in the 90s!

    On the upside, I’m now teaching at one of the schools in the top 10. I guess that’s better than moving in the opposite direction.

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