Universities, we have a problem we are afraid to speak of

Last year, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) published the largest survey of free speech among college students in American history. Polling nearly 20,000 students on 55 campuses, the survey found that six out of 10 felt they could not express an opinion for fear of negative reactions from peers, faculty or administrators.

At most colleges and universities, we pretend like that never happened. We need to get our own house in order, but we still have our heads in the sand.

Witness the reaction to a recent measure signed by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, requiring the state’s higher education institutions to conduct surveys to see if they present “competing ideas and perspectives” and whether students and faculty “feel free to express beliefs and viewpoints”.

Across the country, university leaders condemned the law as a fishing expedition that would chill dialogue on our campuses. But almost nobody acknowledged the chilly atmosphere that already exists.

“We have seen no evidence the universities are indoctrinating students,” declared Mark Criley, senior programme officer with the American Association of University Professors. Indeed, Criley added, the Florida measure is “a solution in search of a problem”.

No. A thousand times no. The law is instead a terribly wrong solution to a very real problem. And unless we address the problem, openly and honestly, bad actors like Ron DeSantis will solve it for us.

Political opportunism

You can’t overstate the raw cynicism of Governor DeSantis, who recently persuaded the state board of education to prohibit public schools from teaching critical race theory and the 1619 Project, a journalism project based on the US’s history of slavery. Even as he touts ideological diversity and intellectual freedom, he obviously has no problem banning ideas that he doesn’t want people to hear.

Nor is it clear how his required surveys will be conducted, or what the state plans to do with the results. But DeSantis has suggested that institutions might see their budgets cut if they are found to be indoctrinating students. How will we decide which schools are the bad ones? And do you want Ron DeSantis making that call? I didn’t think so.

Worst of all, the Florida measure would allow students to record professors in the classroom and to sue if they believed their “expressive rights” were being violated. Nobody knows what that means either. But it’s not too difficult to imagine the kind of malevolence that could ensue. If you don’t like a professor’s politics – or, perhaps, the grade she gave you – don’t get mad; get even. Sue her! It’s easy, and it’s fun.

But at the same time, it’s all too easy to wish away the free-speech problems that brought us to this unhappy juncture in the first place. To repeat, I am outraged – and terrified – at the prospect of Ron DeSantis and his henchmen monitoring the quality of dialogue in higher education.

But I’m also outraged – and, frankly, ashamed – that our universities won’t acknowledge the reality of fear and self-censorship on our campuses. We just can’t bring ourselves to say that there are things we can’t say.

Fear and self-censorship

Alas, the evidence does say that. And if you think otherwise, spend a few minutes scrolling through last year’s FIRE survey. You’ll find quotes from hundreds of students who report that they are indeed afraid to speak their minds.

So are faculty members, especially if their politics shade towards the centre or – God forbid! – the right. In a survey of 445 professors conducted last year by Heterodox Academy, over half said that they believed expressing a dissenting view at work could harm their careers.

So they bite their tongues, and they play along. In a 2006 study, 43% of full-time faculty said they opposed affirmative action for racial minorities in college admissions. But they generally keep that opinion to themselves, if they know what’s good for them. That can’t be good for our universities or even for affirmative action, which could only benefit from a full and free debate of the question.

How can anyone say we have maintained a culture of free expression on our campuses and maintain a straight face at the same time? It would all be laughable if it weren’t so sad. On matters like climate change and vaccination, we scoff at people who ignore scientific data that doesn’t fit their politics. But on free speech, we do exactly the same thing.

Towards open dialogue

So it’s time for us to come clean and to mop up our own mess before the politicians muck it up even more. Every university should add a line to its anti-discrimination policy on race and gender and sexuality, affirming that it does not discriminate on the basis of political viewpoint either.

But that can’t just be a pledge; we need to make it real, too. Every institution should conduct its own survey of students and faculty to determine the level of freedom – and of fear – on campus. We shouldn’t wait for a demagogue like Ron DeSantis to force that on us. And when we discover that people are afraid to speak, we should devise courses, public events and other reforms to promote open dialogue across our differences.

Finally, we need leaders who are brave enough to acknowledge that we are afraid. After the FIRE survey came out, I didn’t hear a single major university president decry the fact that a majority of students did not feel safe expressing their opinions. Are you OK with that? Or are you simply too scared to say that you’re not?

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania, United States. He is the co-author (with Signe Wilkinson) of Free Speech And Why You Should Give a Damn, which was published in April by City of Light Press.