It’s September, students and teachers are returning to classes, and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), in partnership with the survey research and analytics company College Pulse, has released its 2024 College Free Speech Rankings. The statistics are as disheartening as ever. Of the 248 colleges and universities surveyed (plus six “warning colleges”)—up from 55 in 2020 and 203 (plus five) last year—only four are ranked “Good”: Michigan Technological University, Auburn, the University of New Hampshire, and Oregon State.
These rankings are “based on a composite score of 13 components, six of which assess student perceptions of different aspects of the speech climate on their campus” and the “other seven assess[ing] behavior by administrators, faculty, and students regarding free expression on campus.” For example, students were asked to say how easy or hard it is to have open and honest conversations about such issues as abortion, climate change, and the war in Ukraine. As for administrators, FIRE devised a set of metrics that penalizes an institution for sanctioning its scholars while rewarding it for supporting scholars, students, or student groups involved in a free-speech controversy.
Even at the five institutions that FIRE rates most highly (the four ranked “Good” plus Florida State), an awful lot of students find outrageous conduct acceptable: only 45 percent of students say that it is “never acceptable” to shout down a speaker on campus, only 54 percent say this about blocking other students from attending a campus speech, and only 79 percent say this about using violence to stop such a speech. You can probably imagine the situation at the bottom five institutions: Fordham (the lowest of the sixteen that FIRE ranks as “Poor”); Georgetown, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Pennsylvania (all “Very Poor”); and Harvard (“Abysmal”). But in case you don’t want to imagine, here are the statistics: 27 percent say it’s “never acceptable” to shout down a speaker, 46 percent say this about blocking other students, and 68 percent say this about using violence.
Let’s talk about Harvard. The nation’s oldest and most prestigious university was given a score of zero out of 99. To put this in context, Michigan Technological University scored 78.01, while the second-worst institution for free speech, Penn, scored 11.13. And even that does not describe just how abysmal Harvard is these days. To quote from the report: “0.00 is generous” since Harvard’s “actual score is -10.69, more than six standard deviations below the average and more than two standard deviations below” Penn’s.
It is notable that the best institutions for free speech are almost all public and the worst are largely private. In the top 20, only two are private: the 13th-ranked University of Chicago—it ranked first in 2020 and 2022 and has the highest overall ranking over the past four years—and Washington and Lee (20th). By contrast, 13 of the bottom 20 are private. Among them are Yale (234th), Dartmouth (240th), and of course Penn (247th) and Harvard (248th).
Let’s talk about the Ivy League. Not one of the eight institutions is ranked “Good,” “Above Average,” or even “Slightly Above Average.” Indeed, the only one that FIRE considers “Average” is Brown (69th)—far ahead of Princeton (187th), Cornell (212th), Columbia (214th), and the others just mentioned. As for the floating group sometimes called “Ivy Plus,” with the exception of Chicago, whose commitment to freedom of expression I have praised elsewhere, its members are not much more impressive: Duke (124th), MIT (136th), and Stanford (207th).
Anyone who reads the FIRE report and another one involving College Pulse that was released on the same day is certain to experience whiplash. After all, according to this other report, by the Wall Street Journal, the ten best colleges in the country are (in descending order) Princeton, MIT, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, Harvard, Penn, Amherst, Claremont McKenna, and Babson. This year, the Journal, which has been ranking colleges since 2016, changed its methodology to take particular account of “how the schools improve the trajectories of their students’ careers”—in short, “which colleges will do the most to help [students] graduate and make more money.”
For what it’s worth, FIRE does not consider Babson but ranks Claremont McKenna 73rd (it was first in 2021!) and Amherst 195th. And here’s where the other Ivy Plus members fall on the Journal’s list of 400: Duke 16th, Dartmouth 21st, Cornell 24th, Chicago 37th, and Brown 67th. Speaking of whiplash: the top-ranked public university according to the Journal is the University of Florida (15th), which FIRE ranks 231st.
For decades, the college rankings everyone cared the most about were issued by U.S. News & World Report, which in the fall of 2022 claimed that the following were the best “national universities” (in descending order): Princeton; MIT; Harvard, Stanford, and Yale (tied at 3rd); Chicago; Johns Hopkins and Penn (tied at 7th); Cal Tech; and Duke and Northwestern (tied at 10th). As is well known, U.S. News has been under tremendous pressure in recent months, with some institutions refusing to continue to supply data and others admitting to having submitted “incorrect” (i.e., falsified) data, which in the already-infamous case of Columbia appears to have significantly boosted its standing. On September 18, U.S. News is scheduled to make its annual announcement, with the promise of rankings that give greater weight to diversity and no longer take into account such factors as class size and alumni giving.
What, then, are top students to do when contemplating where they might want to attend college? How should they think about a given institution’s commitment to such different priorities as diversity (however understood), earning potential, abundance of sushi stations, and free speech? And how important is it, really, to attend an elite school? Different people will have different answers, but I can’t myself imagine wishing to attend a college that did not protect freedom of expression—and yet all five elite colleges to which I applied and was admitted way back when now fall into this category, according to FIRE, with one “Slightly Below Average,” two “Below Average,” one “Poor,” and one “Abysmal.”
And what are faculty and administrators at elite colleges and universities supposed to do? Faculty need to stand up for their and their students’ right to engage in good-faith discussions of controversial issues. And at least at secular institutions, administrators, from department chairs all the way up to the president and trustees, need to allow these discussions to take place and, unless there is a very, very good reason, not put their thumb on the scale in such a way as to give anyone the impression that a prescribed orthodoxy is in force with which it is unwise, even dangerous, to disagree.
All eyes should now be on Harvard. For one thing, Harvard has a new president, Claudine Gay, who “has a bedrock commitment to free inquiry and expression,” or so the chair of the search committee, Penny Pritzker, assures us. (Call me skeptical.) For another, five months ago, a group of faculty members, including the psychologist Steven Pinker (recent tweet: “We’re Number 0!”), announced with some fanfare the formation of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard. (When I wrote about the CAFH in these pages, it had 71 members. Now there are 136—which is great, though I still wish more humanists would join this and similar efforts.)
Many people are concerned that groups like the CAFH sound nice but don’t actually achieve results. Consider, for example, Nathan Cofnas’s brutal takedown of Heterodox Academy, which I was proud to join soon after it was founded but which, to put it in the softest terms, has not lived up to its potential. So, this is a real test: can the CAFH and President Gay make Harvard better than “Abysmal,” perhaps even “Excellent”?
Change is possible, and in both directions. Look at Claremont McKenna, which fell from 1st to 73rd in two years. (For a stunning contrast, compare the profile of Claremont McKenna on pages 29–31 of FIRE’s report of the 2021 rankings with Christopher Nadon’s words from this past April.) And look at Columbia, which is still “Below Average” but no longer dead last and “Abysmal,” as FIRE described it only 12 months ago. I like to imagine that Columbia’s new president, Baroness Shafik, may improve the climate in Morningside Heights—and I hope that the still-to-be-announced new presidents of Stanford (“Below Average”) and Yale (“Poor”) will make championing free speech a priority.
Perhaps the most important step an institution can take to fix the problem is to have faculty, administrators, and student leaders explain and model the value of free speech for incoming students from the moment they arrive on campus. To be sure, in the current environment, presentations on this subject can give rise to trouble—somehow free speech is often regarded as more controversial than free abortions—but that’s all the more reason why they should be a required part of every freshman orientation. (A real part: at Princeton last month, Anthony Romero, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which no longer regularly protects civil liberties, spoke to the entire Class of 2027 at an event about, supposedly, academic freedom and free expression. He took the opportunity to inform his captive audience that today’s enemies are those denying “right to gender-affirming health care” and “attacking critical race theory.”) Indeed, it might not be bad to start earlier yet: what if students applying to college were asked to write an essay on why free speech matters (but also, I suppose, what limitations they believe it would be salutary to impose)?
Also on the same day that FIRE and the Wall Street Journal released their college reports, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Thomas B. Edsall titled “Behold the Free Speech Chutzpah of the Republican Party.” Edsall quotes at some length a Princeton professor of politics, Paul Frymer, who told him that “we do seem to need regulation of speech, in some form, more than ever.” Specifically, Frymer muses whether “the century-long standard for why we defend free speech—that we need a fairly absolute marketplace of ideas to allow all ideas to be heard (with a few exceptions), deliberated upon and that the truth will ultimately win out—is a bit dated in this modern era of social media, algorithms and, most importantly, profound corporate power.” For my part, I would have thought that social media, algorithms, and profound corporate power are major reasons why we do need a robust defense of free speech. Maybe you need to attend Michigan Tech rather than Princeton to understand why.