For a long time, The University of Chicago has been in the top 5 schools in the “free-speech” rankings of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). Last year we were #1, and our average ranking has been #4. This, plus the fact that over 85 schools have adopted a version of Chicago’s “free expression principles,” and some are starting to adopt our “Kalven principles of institutional neutrality”, have been points of great pride for our administrators, for parents who want their kids to go to a free-speech school, and, of course, for me.
But this year things are different: among the 248 schools surveyed in this year’s FIRE survey, we’ve dropped to #13. This is embarrassing and demands investigation. There’s been some vigorous discussion among faculty about this, with many concluding that our drop is due to students not feeling as free to discuss controversial topics as stjudents in other schools, and our FORE speech coding rating is yellow (“caution”) rather than green (“best”).
The rankings are based on a variety of measures, including sanctioning of faculty or students for speech, degree of disruption of invited speakers (as happened with Judge Duncan at Stanford), how comfortable students feel discussing topics like abortion or race (see the criteria here and here, and the rubric on p. 41 of the pdf ), and whether or not the University has a “speech code” with restrictions beyond those hemming in the First Amendment.
Click on the icon below to get FIRE’s “executive summary” of the 2024 rankings. You can also find a press release here, and you can go here to download the whole 85-page document. If you want to check out individual schools, go here.
Chicago ranks 94th in the degree in which students feel comfortable expressing controversial ideas, 123rd in openness to discussing such ideas, and, abysmally, 156th in student feelings about the acceptability of blocking or deplatforming speakers (BAD ranking!) Our overall ranking is 65.95, rated “above average”.
But the most striking aspects of the report are the unexpectedly high ranking of schools you don’t hear much about and, most shocking of all, how POOR the elite colleges, like the Ivies, have done. Harvard, in fact, is at the very bottom of the list, the first school ever ranked as “abysmal”. That’s no surprise to anyone who follows how woke Harvard has become, which necessitated the formation of a faculty-led Council of Academic Freedom.
This is from FIRE’s new executive summary:
This year’s survey includes 55,102 student respondents from 254 colleges and universities. Students who were enrolled in four-year degree programs were surveyed via the College Pulse mobile app and web portal from January 13 to June 30, 2023.
The College Free Speech Rankings are available online and are presented in an interactive dashboard (rankings.thefire.org) that allows for easy comparison between institutions.
- Michigan Technological University is the top-ranked school in the 2024 College Free Speech Rankings. Auburn University, the University of New Hampshire, Oregon State University, and Florida State University round out the top five.
- Harvard University obtained the lowest score possible, 0.00, and is the only school with an “Abysmal” speech climate rating. The University of Pennsylvania, the University of South Carolina, Georgetown University, and Fordham University also ranked in the bottom five.
- The key factors differentiating high-performing schools (the top five) from poorly performing ones (the bottom five) are scores on the components of “Tolerance Difference” and “Disruptive Conduct.” Students from schools in the bottom five were more biased toward allowing controversial liberal speakers on campus over conservative ones and were more accepting of students using disruptive and violent forms of protest to stop a campus speech.
- Deplatforming attempts that occurred at schools ranked in the bottom five had an alarming 81% success rate.
- More than half of students (56%) expressed worry about damaging their reputation because of someone misunderstanding what they have said or done, and just over a quarter of students (26%) reported that they feel pressure to avoid discussing controversial topics in their classes. Twenty percent reported that they often self-censor.
- When provided with a definition of self-censorship, at least a quarter of students said they self-censor “fairly often” or “very often” during conversations with other students, with professors, and during classroom discussions, respectively (25%, 27%, and 28%, respectively). A quarter of students also said that they are more likely to self-censor on campus now — at the time they were surveyed — than they were when they first started college.
- Almost half of the students surveyed (49%) said that abortion is a difficult topic to have an open and honest conversation about on campus. A notable portion of students also identified gun control, racial inequality, and transgender rights, respectively, as topics difficult to discuss (43%, 42%, and 42%, respectively).
- Student opposition to allowing controversial conservative speakers on campus ranged from 57% to 72%, depending on the speaker. In contrast, student opposition to controversial liberal speakers ranged from 29% to 43%, depending on the speaker.
- More than 2 in 5 students (45%) said that students blocking other students from attending a speech is acceptable to some degree, up from 37% last year. And more than a quarter of students (27%) said that using violence to stop a campus speech is acceptable to some degree, up from 20% last year.
- More than 1 in 5 students (21%) reported that their college administration’s stance on free speech on campus is not clear, and more than a quarter of students (27%) reported that it is unlikely their college administration would defend a speaker’s right to express his or her views if a controversy occurred on campus.
And a bit more. Poor Harvard (I shed no tears; it’s insufferably woke)! Harvard actually had a negative score, but they cut off the numerical rankings at zero. Not that this will hurt the school: Harvard has a “teflon” reputation, like Trump, so no matter how bad it acts, it’s still on many people’s “top school” list.
Harvard is by far the worst school in the country for free speech. It is the only school with an “Abysmal” rating.
Deplatforming attempts that occurred at schools ranked in the bottom five had an alarming 81% success rate.
Up to 72% of students opposed allowing a conservative speaker on campus, depending on the topic, while up to 43% of students opposed allowing a liberal speaker on campus.
73% of students said that using violence to stop a campus speech is never acceptable, down from 80% last year. At Oberlin College, only 53% of students said that violence is never acceptable.
At a time of national dialogue about abortion policy, 49% of students have difficulty discussing abortion on campus. The most difficult topics to discuss on campus are abortion, gun control, racial inequality, and transgender rights.
Of the 248 schools ranked, 73 have “below average,” “poor,” “very poor,” or “abysmal” speech climates. Just 47 have at least “slightly above average” speech climates. Last year, when 203 schools were ranked, these totals were 64 and 39, respectively.
Now, for your delectation, the top 20, or “best” schools. Michigan Tech is #1, and, surprisingly (at least to me), many of the best schools are in the South. I put a box around Chicago to highlight our shame.
. . . and the worst schools. Note that they include “elite” colleges like Middlebury, Yale, Dartmouth, Georgetown, and Harvard—the first school ever to be rated “abysmal”.
Note that what sets the top schools apart from the bottom ones fall under the category of “student tolerance” of differences. Or, as the report says,
The key factors differentiating high-performing schools (the top five) from poorly performing ones (the bottom five) are scores on the components of “Tolerance Difference” and “Disruptive Conduct.” Students from schools in the bottom five were more biased toward allowing controversial liberal speakers on campus over conservative ones and were more accepting of students using disruptive and violent forms of protest to stop a campus speech.
There’s also this:
More than 2 in 5 students (45%) said that students blocking other students from attending a speech is acceptable to some degree, up from 37% last year. And more than a quarter of students (27%) said that using violence to stop a campus speech is acceptable to some degree, up from 20% last year.
It’s horrifying to realize that nearly half of all students (this includes all colleges surveyed) think that it’s okay to block students from attending a speech, and more than a quarter think that using violence to deplatform a campus speech is also okay. Both figures are up 7-8% from last year, and I don’t think that’s an accident. It’s a combination of ignorance (see below) and the increasing political polarization of America attendant on the Biden/Trump split and the ascendancy on campus of “wokeness,” an authoritarian and censorious philosophy. No matter what the cause, speech in American universities (and I suspect in UK schools as well) is getting more and more chilled.
What does this mean? It means that either students are ignorant of the First Amendment, to which nearly all colleges pay fealty, or, less likely, they know how the First Amendment works, and know the few exceptions, but they don’t like the whole free-speech idea. My guess is that that students simply need an education on why the First Amendment is so important, and my feeling is that college orientations for first-year students should include a unit on freedom of speech, one that includes Mill’s “On Liberty” and this wonderful speech from Christopher Hitchens at the University of Toronto. We don’t have to “respect” the other person’s point of view, but students need LISTEN to it. For if you ignore all views that strike you at the outset as offensive, you won’t learn anything, nor will you won’t get the ability to refine and hone your own point of view.
At 3 PM Eastern Time this Thursday, FIRE is holding a free Zoom webinar on the rankings discussed above. Click on the screenshot below to register for the webinar, or go here. You need to provide only your name and email address, and you’ll get registration info.
Oh, one other thing the ranking demonstrate is that the reputation of “elite” colleges is largely independent on the freedom of discourse enjoyed by their members. This strikes me a scary.