When my son, Anthony, began looking at colleges, the environment they offer for free-wheeling debate was an important consideration. Respect for freedom of speech and thought at colleges has been on the ropes for a while and worsened over the past year. Some schools, like the ones to which my son applied, rank well when it comes to tolerance for diversity of ideas, but others are the absolute pits.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a civil liberties group that began with a focus on academia, just published a rogues’ gallery of institutions of higher education that anybody with an independent mind should avoid.
“Each year, FIRE bestows a special dishonor upon a select group of American colleges that go above and beyond in their efforts to trample expressive freedom. These are the schools that stopped at nothing to crush faculty rights, destroy student expression, and leave guest speakers in the dust,” the group announced on February 2. “For that, we owe them their just reward: A spot on our exclusive ’10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech’ list.”
The dishonored schools are: Hamline University, The Pennsylvania State University*, Collin College, Texas A&M, University of Pennsylvania, Emerson College, Emporia State University, Tennessee Tech, University of Oregon, and Loyola University.
Additionally, Georgetown University won a Lifetime Censorship Award for taking “122 days to determine that a 45-word tweet is protected political speech.” That involved law professor Ilya Shapiro who ultimately resigned despite prevailing through the ordeal over comments about the Supreme Court selection process. He worried that the school “set me up for discipline the next time I transgress progressive orthodoxy.”
After the university’s multiple appearances on the “10 Worst” list for transgressions ranging from the Shapiro incident to preventing students from campaigning for Bernie Sanders, FIRE bestowed the lifetime award to acknowledge “Georgetown’s fondness for censorship.” In this dubious achievement, it joins Yale University, DePaul University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Syracuse University.
The other schools on this year’s “10 Worst” list may not fall into the same repeat-offender category, but they’ve certainly been creative in earning their booby prizes.
Minnesota’s Hamline won its spot by dismissing an adjunct art professor who “showed a 14th century painting depicting Islam’s prophet Muhammadbut not before she offered multiple warnings, acknowledged that some Muslims believe the prophet should not be depicted in any way, and told students they weren’t required to look,” in FIRE’s words. The ensuing controversy over speech and academic freedom continues, with the faculty last month asking President Fayneese Miller to resign.
Collin College, a Texas community college and therefore bound by the First Amendment, earned its distinction for a series of retaliations against faculty who upset the administration. Its most recent move was to fire “history professor Michael Phillips for advocating for the removal of Confederate statues and criticizing the college’s COVID-19 policies,” as FIRE puts it. Phillips is suing Collin.
The University of Oregon gained its ranking by directing faculty search committees to impose diversity, equity, and inclusion assessments of candidates that go well beyond the stated goal of creating a welcoming environment and instead serve as ideological litmus tests. “Basically, if you want to work at UO, you have to pledge allegiance to and promote administrators’ DEI [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] vision,” notes FIRE. “These requirements violate faculty’s freedom of expression and academic freedom.”
DEI statements have proliferated throughout academia and are now included in consideration for tenure at 21.5 percent of colleges and universities, and at 45.6 percent of large institutions of higher education, according to a 2022 survey by the American Association of University Professors. Some are less ideological than others, but there’s a tendency for them to increasingly demand adherence to specific points of view.
“Every psychologist who wants to present at the most important convention in our field must now say how their work advances anti-racism,” NYU Professor Jonathan Haidt objected last year to an “explicitly ideological” DEI requirement from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. He announced his resignation from the professional organization rather than comply.
DEI statements entered my son’s academic considerations as well, though tangentially. After he’d already decided to attend the University of Arizona, the state’s Goldwater Institute reported that “Arizona’s three public universities have all begun forcing faculty job applicants to provide mandatory ‘diversity statements’ as a condition of hiring.” So far, 28 percent of job postings at the University of Arizona require DEI statements, far less than the 73 percent of postings at Northern Arizona University or the 81 percent at Arizona State University.
The University of Arizona scores well overall in terms of respect for free speech, ranked as it is in 18th place (above average) on FIRE’s latest College Free Speech rankings. That’s good news for my kid, but the news isn’t so encouraging overall for anybody pursuing higher education. That assessment found an increase in the number of schools hitting rock-bottom “red light” status relative to those enjoying “green light” ratings when it comes to tolerance for ideas and expression.
“Two universities joined the ranks of green light schools this year: the University of North Carolina at Asheville and the University of South Florida. While none of the green light schools lost their status, 12 schools dropped from a yellow to a red light rating, and the percentage of red light schools rose by 0.8 percent, the first increase in 15 years,” according to FIRE.
That kind of slippage in maintaining an open and respectful environment for speech and thought is why it’s so important to call out schools that, for whatever reason, punish people who express themselves and debate ideas. Without consequences, it’s too easy for them to target dissidents, activists, agitators, and heterodox thinkers. Ultimately, you end up with echo chambers instead of institutions of learning.
By all appearances, my son is off to a good start in higher education with his plans to attend a school that meets his educational needs while also encouraging open discussion. Everybody preparing college applications would be well-served to similarly consider the environment for free speech when they contemplate their continuing education, and to cross off all of those listed among the “10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this article misstated the name of The Pennsylvania State University.