Harvard University has long prided itself on being the place for “curve-breakers,” a super-achieving university that leaves other schools as distant seconds. The recent ranking of schools by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) on free speech in higher education certainly fulfilled that reputation, but not in the way most would want.
Harvard was ranked dead last as the country’s most hostile school for free speech. It received a score of 0.000 — and even that was subject to grade inflation; its actual score was -10.69.
Harvard’s dismal ranking is of little surprise to most of us in the free-speech community. While Harvard recently committed itself to “having a conversation” about free speech, any conversation may prove strikingly one-sided. A Harvard Crimson study found that most departments had effectively purged their ranks of conservatives. Only 1.46% of the faculty now self-identifies as “conservative,” while 82.46% of faculty surveyed identifies as “liberal” or “very liberal.” This, in a country that has split down the middle between Republicans and Democrats.
Harvard is perceived as equally hostile to students voicing opposing viewpoints. Given the faculty’s makeup, it is not surprising that only 35% of that dwindling number of students feel comfortable in voicing their views or values in class. For many, the speech intolerance on campus is crossing the line from education to indoctrination.
Yet, pundits have defended the elimination of conservatives from university faculties. Above the Law senior editor Joe Patrice defended “predominantly liberal faculties” in a column arguing that hiring a conservative academic was akin to allowing a believer in geocentrism — that the sun orbits the earth — to teach at a university.
Harvard faculty also have been some of the loudest voices for censorship and blacklisting, including stripping conservative graduates like Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) of their degrees or board positions.
Harvard is not alone in creating an environment of viewpoint intolerance. Other schools at the bottom of the list include the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown University, the University of South Carolina and Fordham University.
The inclusion of the University of South Carolina stands out in an important respect: The lowest-ranking schools have tended to be private universities, which are not subject to the full protections of free speech under the First Amendment. Conversely, the top performers this year are, notably, all public universities — Michigan Technological University, Auburn University, the University of New Hampshire, Oregon State University, and Florida State University.
Indeed, in the top-20 schools for free speech, only two are private universities, the University of Chicago and Washington & Lee University. The placement of the University of South Carolina at the bottom of the list is a testament to the resistance of some administrators and faculty members to free speech.
Much like woke corporations, faculty continue to exclude conservative professors and limit free speech despite the desire of many students to attend speech-tolerant institutions. Such speech limits serve faculty in advancing promotions, publications and speaking opportunities. The result could be the Bud Light version of higher education: These faculty members are damaging their brand to advance their own agendas.
The fact is that the better performance of public universities likely reflects compulsion rather than agreement for many faculty. Public universities must protect free speech as a matter of law. Even at top performers like Washington & Lee, professors have joined calls to ban conservative speakers. The inclination of these faculties is still reflected in the continued replication of liberal viewpoints with the exclusion of conservative faculty members. One study found that 33 out of 65 departments lacked a single conservative faculty member. Only 9% of law professors identify as conservatives.
The result, however, is a startling and growing divide among private and public universities. For parents and students who value free speech, they must increasingly look to public universities where faculty are subject to constitutional guarantees.
In the same way, public universities may be the final line of defense for free-speech advocates.
As shown by the FIRE survey, we now largely have two systems of higher education for those seeking education with a diversity of opinions and viewpoints. Except for outliers like the University of Chicago and other private universities holding the line on free speech, the orthodoxy found at private universities remains a barrier to many conservative and independent thinkers.
If we are to protect these bastions of free speech, legislatures will need to play a more active role in addressing the exclusion of both faculty candidates and speakers on public campuses. Too many faculties continue to take the view that citizens are a captive audience that is expected to continue to fund their departments as they exclude conservative or dissenting views held by many, if not most, citizens in a given state. If faculty members want to continue to maintain echo chambers for their own viewpoints, they should have to seek private donors for maintaining such intolerance and orthodoxy. Legislatures can demand evidence that schools are maintaining intellectually diverse faculties in determining the level of continued support from citizens.
Many of us still hope that private universities will return to policies of viewpoint tolerance and diversity. However, it is unlikely. The Harvard Crimson editors previously interviewed one of the last remaining conservatives on the Harvard faculty, 90-year-old political scientist Harvey Mansfield, who decried the loss of intellectual diversity. However, after poking Mansfield like he was a curiosity found on campus, the student editors wrote that there was no reason to worry about the disappearance of conservative faculty because free speech and diversity concerns are merely “reductive.”
In other words, it is simplistic to expect any conservative or libertarian professor to teach at Harvard. Students can always hear about conservative or libertarian views from liberal faculty. If anyone doubts their existence, they still may be able to spot Mansfield, who is retired, moving around campus. Short of being stuffed and displayed at the Harvard Museum, he could prove the last, lingering evidence of a once tolerant university.
Jonathan Turley, an attorney, constitutional law scholar and legal analyst, is the Shapiro Chair for Public Interest Law at The George Washington University Law School.