FIRE free-speech rankings again put Chicago on top, but Columbia at rock bottom

September 9, 2022 • 12:00 pm

We’re #1 again: in freedom of speech, that is. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, FIRE, has listed its annual free speech rankings, with the lowest numbers going to the best schools. A number of things are assessed in these rankings, including student views (how comfortable they are expressing ideas, acceptability of disruptive conduct, etc.) as well as administrative conduct (speech code ranking, disinvitation, etc.) You can see all the criteria and how they were combined in their rankings summary booklet (download pdf here after filling in your information); the relevant bits for scoring are on pp. 9-12.

The email from Fire noted this:

The past year has shown just how vulnerable the free speech rights of both students and faculty are on America’s college campuses. At Georgetown University, Ilya Shapiro was suspended — over a tweet! — from his new role as senior lecturer and executive director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution. At American University, eight law students were placed under investigation for debating abortion in the wake of the leaked draft of the Dobbs Supreme Court decision. In both of these cases, FIRE stepped in, defending what these universities did not: freedom of speech. What can prospective college students or their parents do to ensure that they attend a college that respects freedom of speech? 

To see the rankings, click on the link below. I’ll put up to the top 15 and bottom ten schools. Last year we were #2 (I can’t remember who beat us out), but now we’re back on top again. This requires eternal vigilance on the part of the University of Chicago’s administration and faculty, for pressure from both above and below always tries to erode free speech—even here.

Enter FIRE’s 2022-2023 College Free Speech Rankings. We surveyed 45,000 students and examined colleges’ track records on free speech to rank over 200 of America’s top colleges — giving you a straightforward guide to the best colleges for free speech in the country.

Here are the top 15 schools with links to their evaluation pages:

1.) The University of Chicago.

2.) Kansas State University

3.) Purdue University: Main Campus

4.) Mississippi State University

5.) Oklahoma State University

6.) Claremont McKenna College

7.) University of North Carolina at Greensboro

8.) Northern Arizona University

9.) North Carolina State University at Raleigh

10.) Oregon State University

11.) The University of Memphis

12.) The College of William and Mary (my alma mater!)

13.) The University of North Carolina at Charlotte

14.) Arkansas State University: Main Campus

15.) Florida State University

Note that three of the 15 are in North Carolina, and nine are in the South (if you count Oklahoma as “south”). That’s a proportion from the South that I wouldn’t expect.

And the ten worst universities for free speech, with the worst listed first:

203.) Columbia University (!) Get to work, John McWhorter!

202.) University of Pennsylvania

201.) Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

200.) Georgetown University

199.) Skidmore College

198.) Yale University (!)

197.) Northwestern University

196.) Pitzer College

195.) Scripps College

194.) Santa Clara University 

Here are some other colleges of interest and their rankings:

170.) Harvard University

154.) Cornell University

169.) Princeton University

135.) Oberlin College

115.) Smith College

114.) Brown University

69.) The University of California, Berkeley

Sadly, The Evergreen State University is not listed.

And here are the special points made by FIRE, with the first two already noted above. The chilling of speech mentioned in the third and fourth points are important, which is why our Kalven Report stands as a buttress to Chicago’s Principles of Free Expression.

  • The University of Chicago was the top-ranked school in the College Free Speech Rankings for the second time in three years.

  • Columbia University had, by far, the lowest score in the 2022 College Free Speech Rankings, with a Speech Climate rating of “Abysmal.” The University of Pennsylvania, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Georgetown University, and Skidmore College are also ranked in the bottom five.
  • More than three in five students (63%) expressed worry about damaging their reputation because of someone misunderstanding what they have said or done, and just over one in five (21%) reported that they feel a lot of pressure to avoid discussing controversial topics in their classes. Twenty-two percent reported that they often self-censor.

  • Roughly three in five students reported they would feel discomfort publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic or expressing an unpopular opinion to their peers on a social media account tied to their name.

10 thoughts on “FIRE free-speech rankings again put Chicago on top, but Columbia at rock bottom

    1. That is indeed striking. Columbia (#203 and $61,671 tuition) and Oberlin (#135 and $61,106 tuition) typify the correlation, which is also reminiscent of the episodes of advanced wokeliness at expensive private schools in NYC. Two interpretations, not mututally exclusive, come to mind.
      (1) High tuition charges give the admins, and the faculty, a feeling of impunity;

      (2) admins and faculty at the most expensive operations use woke performance rituals to assuage their symptoms of imposter syndrome.

  1. The low ranking of Penn is interesting in light of the recent controversy over the law school’s Amy Wax, who is tenured but under attack from both students and the dean. Her views on many topics are certainly controversial (and “offensive” to some), but her scholarly credentials are impeccable and she is highly articulate in defense of her very unpopular opinions.

  2. I find Claremont McKenna being so high, with Pitzer and Scripps being so low interesting, given their relationship. (Pomona was pretty far down at #190, and Harvey Mudd was pretty far up at #54, to round out the consortium)

    It is interesting the MIT and Smith are so close (120 and 115), as well.

    I wish I could be surprised by where the Ivies fall, but my time with several of them (going back four decades) prevents it.

  3. In retrospect, perhaps it’s not surprising that some of the best rankings are among schools in the south. Since the most liberal—and woke—schools are elite institutions in the north, those schools garner the poorer ranking, leaving southern schools behind (er, ahead). The elite schools are leading in the race to the bottom.

    1. I agree the pattern is predictable (without making qualitative statements on the universities). There’s a perception (again, trying to remain agnostic here) that the modern left is more censorious than the modern right and the ivys try to stay at the forefront of the left whereas many universities in the south are ranked as the most conservative public universities nationwide. From experience, my alma mater is Mississippi State (#4) and my current graduate school is Auburn University (#22). I’ve rarely had professors or students that seemed as ideologically driven or censorious as ones I see in the media. Part of that disconnect is probably media exaggeration but I guess part of it too is that I may have just been at unusually good universities in this regard. I’m not going to make login info to read the PDF of criteria FIRE uses though they have some summaries on the website with the ranked list and it seems like it’s largely based on questionnaires to students. The ivys are probably much more stressful environments with high expectations in general, so regardless of politics students could be more concerned about speaking up too often and sounding stupid. That is somewhat the impression I’ve gotten from meeting a few people associated with those schools at least (for example having met one person who graduated Columbia [#1 worst ranked on this list] and has nothing good to say about it). There’s a video of Yeonmi Park where she talks about her experiences at Columbia and compares it to North Korea, which I’m sure is hyperbole but still has some relevance here.

  4. I poked around in the FIRE website to learn how the rankings are made. Several factors go into it, but high up are the results from surveys on how respondents feel about the climate. I do think a heavy reliance on that could result in errors since there are different motivations to respond to a survey. If you feel pressure to stifle yourself, you may be more likely to respond, for example.
    Another factor that goes into these rankings is “Administrative Behavior”, which I take to mean communication and policies coming down from administration regarding speech. So here you would find “free speech but” policies, and records of cancelled speakers, and so on. I feel that administrative behavior is significant factor but I don’t know how you’d numerically rank that.

  5. Claremont McKenna in the top 10, while Pitzer and Scripps are in the bottom 10? The three are all on a single ‘campus’ along with Pomona and Harvey Mudd. Last I knew, the students can take courses at any college. This makes my head tilt sideways at the thought of what conversations sound like when a student party is in a dorm located at Scripps or Pitzer …versus CMC.

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