It was big news the other week when the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) announced that Harvard University had the worst record on free speech of any university in the country. This is particularly sad considering its history. Harvard is where Samuel Adams first began to formulate the concept that the American colonies should free themselves from control of the British Parliament. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Samuel’s cousin John Adams all credit Samuel Adams with being the first to conceptualize the idea of freedom for the American colonies. It was virtually unthinkable idea at the time but it became a reality because Adams and his friends at Harvard discussed and debated it, effectively incubating the idea of independence for Americans.
By the mid-1760s, the British had made Samuel Adams and anyone who agreed with him public enemies, just for talking about independence.
Luckily for us, that didn’t stop them. Those Harvard men moved forward, writing pamphlets and making speeches, despite knowing that their statements would likely ruin their prospects for advancement, at best, or ultimately get them arrested or hanged, at worst.
That’s why it is so tragic that Harvard students today report they frequently are afraid to say anything that might be construed as controversial or politically incorrect. They are afraid of being censured by their professors. One student told researchers that she chose to write on topics that weren’t controversial to avoid censure.
According to FIRE, Harvard’s free speech record is so bad that it actually managed to score lower than zero. It called Harvard’s record “abysmal.”
FIRE establishes its rankings by polling students. It also compiles data on how many students are dismissed for speaking out, how many controversial campus speakers turn out to be dis-invited, and whether or not the university administration has stood in support of free speech or buckled under campus or faculty pressure.
Harvard ranked 248 out of 248 academic institutions surveyed.
Yet, the University of Texas at Austin’s ranking was almost as bad as Harvard’s—near the bottom, they ranked 236, the worst of any school in Texas.
According to FIRE researchers, the majority viewpoint at both Harvard and UT Austin is liberal, which is no surprise. What is surprising is that students at UT Austin outnumber conservatives by a ratio of almost 4-to-1. That’s slightly higher than Harvard, where the liberal to conservative viewpoint ratio is 3.32-to-1.
Harvard, of course, is a private school (although it does receive plenty of federal tax dollars). Still, voters in Massachusetts gave Joe Biden a 33 point victory in 2020, so maybe a 3-to-1 liberal to conservative ratio on the nation’s oldest college campus makes sense there.
But the University of Texas at Austin is located in a state that has elected conservative Republicans to every statewide office for more than two decades. What excuse can there possibly be for Texas taxpayers to underwrite a campus where the liberal to conservative ratio is almost 4-to-1 and students don’t feel like they can speak their minds?
The study also found that UT Austin students were more comfortable than Harvard students when it comes to shutting down speakers they don’t agree with on campus. A larger percentage of UT Austin students gave a green light to “blocking entry, shouting down and physical violence to prevent on-campus speakers from speaking” than those at Harvard.
Harvard students also showed more tolerance for both liberal and conservative speakers on campus than students attending the University of Texas. FIRE didn’t call UT Austin’s record abysmal, but it did call it “poor,” not a term Texans usually find acceptable in any ranking, particularly when describing a multi-billion dollar operation that presents itself as the flagship of flagships.
Both Harvard and UT Austin scored below average on “comfort expressing ideas via writing in class and among their peers and professors”–146 at UT and 144 at Harvard. You can see how this would happen after seeing former UT Dean of so-called “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion”(DEI) Skyller Walkes, screaming at a group of students that “an educator in a system of oppression is either a revolutionary or an oppressor. Which one will you identify as?”
If you watch the video it is clear there’s no room for “What do you think?” or “Speak up if you disagree.”
Also, remember University of Texas Psychology Professor Kirsten Bradbury who asked the following multiple choice question on a test:
“Which sociodemographic group is most likely to repeatedly violate the rights of others, in a pattern of behavior that includes violence, deceit, irresponsibility and lack of remorse?”
The correct test answer was “wealthy white men.”
The student who came forward with that test question did so secretly and took great care to remain anonymous. She did not present it to university officials.
Bradbury issued a non-apology and there have been no reports of repercussions from the university.
Freedom of speech is essential to the primary purpose of a university education. Diversity of thought, and open inquiry are critical to creative thinking and innovation. Without them there is no hope of expanding worldviews that were previously unimagined–like Samuel Adams did.
By the way, Texas A&M ranked seventh on the FIRE survey. WHOOP.