Universities regularly regard themselves as havens for broadening students’ horizons by exposing them to a wide range of perspectives. This sentiment is exemplified in university mottoes like Yale’s and Harvard’s, which invoke “veritas,” or the exposition of truth. In fact, diversity of thought is a foremost value in the core curriculums of institutions like the University of Chicago, where its inclusion is critical in a growingly performance-based pre-professional approach to higher education.
Unfortunately, however, the reality nowadays is that universities tend to function merely as echo chambers for the majority views on campus. In such an environment, those with opinions that dissent from the majority’s tend to be shunned. This implicit censorship is not necessarily a result of any new regulations or policies permeating American universities, although there have been initiatives to encourage these skewed dialogues. Universities are often limited in their ability to restrict dialogue directly, and they still continue to at least superficially guarantee freedom of speech on campus. How, then, are universities failing to uphold their commitment to cultivating well-rounded learning environments?
For starters, American schools are facing an enormous self-censorship problem. In 2020, Penn ranked in the top 10 student bodies with the least comfort expressing their opinions. A survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a civil liberties advocacy organization based in Philadelphia and started by former Penn History professor Alan Charles Kors, found that over 80% of students curb their speech at least some of the time for fear of academic and social repercussions. Whether or not this is based on explicit instances of professors affecting their student’s grades due to political biases does not change the fact that this problem does indeed exist. Universities’ failure to take steps to make their campus environments more discourse-friendly presents a problem in and of itself.
In addition, universities often fail to deliver on promises of intellectual diversity when it comes to the speakers that are permitted on campus. More often than not, universities will bend to the will of student protesters, even when they are present in small numbers, who take issue with a slotted speaker’s visit to campus. This is typical in cases of speakers who are invited to campus to speak on politically sensitive topics — such as Penn College Republicans’ invitation of former Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Thomas Homan in 2020, whose invitation to campus brought along with it a significant amount of student protest.
More recently this trend has extended to speakers who are commissioned to speak on politically neutral topics. The most recent example of this was in fall of 2021, when Dorian Abbot, assistant professor of geophysics at UChicago, was disinvited from lecturing at MIT about his expertise in geophysics amid controversy over his opinions on affirmative action. While it may seem surprising to many of us that views on the college admissions process could warrant the delegitimizing of someone’s expertise in an unrelated field, the disinviting of speakers to college campuses is nothing new. In 2016, Business Insider compiled a list of noteworthy “disinvitations” from college campuses from the previous school year. The list is striking, and it's safe to say that this issue isn’t going away.
Not only do colleges project their political antagonism outward, very often professors are also subject to the ideological whims of the institutions they work for. Whether it is an instance of ousting a professor over online content, subliminal “pushing out” of professors for having views that contradict their universities’ administration's, or the suppression of criticisms of school policies, each institution finds innovative ways to tie the hands of its educators.
It is therefore no surprise that we’ve seen a huge decline in conservative academics — who already comprised a minority — particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Outside of economics departments, where professors can safely market themselves as solely “fiscally” conservative, Republican-identifying faculty comprise single-digit percentages now.
Students are also not immune to being targeted by their universities. Just this fall, a Native American Yale Law student and member of the university’s Federalist Society — a conservative student organization on campus — was summoned to meet with the associate dean and the diversity director as well as offer a public apology over his use of the term “trap house” in an email invitation for a party. In the conversation, which he recorded, it was revealed that the basis for his condemnation was that other students felt triggered by the party’s association to the Federalist Society. While prejudicial and offensive speech shouldn’t be permitted on college campuses, the lowering bar for censorship should be alarming to people of all political affiliations.
This is not to say, however, that there is no hope for the dream of higher education environments that foster diverse and constructive intellectual debate. Organizations like FIRE are doing vital work to preserve free speech on campuses around the country. At Penn, we have the privilege of platforms like The Daily Pennsylvanian and non-partisan political spaces like the Penn Political Union to voice our opinions. I sit on Penn’s University Committee on Open Expression, which takes steps to prevent the type of prohibitions mentioned earlier. Many administrators are even beginning to acknowledge the deficit of free expression at their schools.
The most important thing we as students can do is change the way that we perceive the value of speech. We are notoriously in favor of freedom of thought with exceptions for the views which stand in ideological opposition to our own. The only way to equip us for the partisan and divisive world we are entering into post-graduation is by exposing us to conversation now. Take the issue into your own hands and engage with people with whom you disagree. You may find you have more in common with them than you think.
LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College sophomore studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Stamford, Ct. Her email is email@example.com.