ACTA in the News | Freedom of Expression

Are The Kids At Princeton—and Ohio State And UW–Madison Really OK?

FORBES   |  May 26, 2023 by Michael B. Poliakoff

Is it education or indoctrination? A credibility gap concerning such basic professional ethics imperils the reputation of colleges and universities and for public institutions could well affect a state legislature’s funding decisions. And data from new surveys, each asking an overlapping range of questions about freedom of expression on campus, are disquieting. Students hesitate to disagree with the politics of their professors; many think that indoctrination is an institutional goal. A large number self-censor while also seeking to silence viewpoints that they judge to be hurtful or offensive. They feel pressure from institutional leadership, their professors, and their peers to conform both inside the classroom and on campus. Such findings should worry university leadership, and they should worry all who consider debate, dialogue, and civil disagreement essential for a free society.

A recent College Pulse survey sponsored by Princetonians for Free Speech, an alumni group, found that 54% of Princeton University students believe they would feel uncomfortable disagreeing with the university or their department on a controversial topic. And when the respondents self-identify as Republican or Independent-leaning Republican, that figure rises to 79%. The Daily Princetonian’s recent survey of Princeton’s graduating seniors shows a steep political divide: 84% of students who identify as leftist/socialist feel comfortable sharing their views on campus as do 82% of those identifying as very liberal, but for Princeton seniors of libertarian outlook, that figure drops to about 13%; for the very conservative, the figure is 21%. It is no surprise that 45% of Princeton’s graduating seniors say their college years moved them more to the left; only 17% report a move to the right. Going back to the Princeton alumni survey, 41% of the total student body believes that some faculty and administrators attempt to indoctrinate students with their own beliefs.

“They cause desolation and call it peace,” wrote Roman historian Tacitus 20 centuries ago. And in a statement that could be at home in Potemkin Village, Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber recently wrote, “We have civil discourse on this campus.”

No. Even acknowledging that such surveys rely on self-reporting, that last finding would have horrified the distinguished philosophers John Dewey and Arthur Lovejoy, who founded the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915. The AAUP Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure reads, in part: “The university teacher, in giving instruction upon controversial matters, while he is under no obligation to hide his own opinion under a mountain of equivocal verbiage, should, if he is fit for his position, be a person of a fair and judicial mind; he should, in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators.” That needs to be written on the wall of every faculty and administrative office.

The findings from surveys at two flagship public universities, The Ohio State University (OSU) and the University of Wisconsin (UW)–Madison, the former as part of the Campus Freedom Initiative™ of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, and the latter initiated by the University of Wisconsin System, suggest that the free exchange of ideas is limited on those campuses, too. At OSU, 50% of students reported self-censoring either occasionally, fairly often, or very often for fear of how other students, their professors, or their administration would respond. For students who self-identify as conservative, that figure rose to 76%. At UW–Madison, 53% of students reported some degree of self-censorship in class, and 35% said they feel pressure to agree with an instructor’s political or ideological viewpoint.

Like Princeton, the student bodies at OSU and UW–Madison lean significantly to the left/liberal, outnumbering conservatives 2:1 at OSU and 3:1 at Madison. Fifty-three percent of OSU students report having a small number of friends with a different political ideology, with 24% reporting none or at most one or two. At his inauguration in 1800, Thomas Jefferson famously declared, “We are all republicans, we are all federalists.” Based on the survey findings at these three major universities, that embrace of unity across political difference has not been a campus priority.

Illiberal behavior appears intertwined with the breakdown of political discourse. In the Princetonians for Free Speech survey, 40% of Princeton students favor barring an athlete from a school team for expressing views that teammates find offensive. Only 24% of the Princeton students would agree that it is never acceptable to shout down a speaker. Five percent say using violence to stop a speech is at least sometimes acceptable. OSU students are only marginally more hesitant about shouting down a speaker, with 32% declaring it always unacceptable. Forty-one percent of UW–Madison students believe that views they deem offensive cause significant harm to vulnerable people. Not surprisingly, 43% deem it right to disinvite speakers they find “offensive,” and, yet more extreme, 14% favor the disruption of such speeches, and 5% find forcing the speaker off the stage appropriate.

The causes of campus illiberalism are complex, but sometimes there are evident self-inflicted wounds that reinforce it. That quite a few Princetonians hold onto shout-downs and even violence in their toolbox of acceptable responses to viewpoints they do not want to hear should also occasion no surprise. The persecution and ultimate firing of Princeton Professor Joshua Katz after he raised objections to such measures as special privileges for faculty of color or a faculty panel to evaluate colleagues’ publications for signs of racism made clear that Princeton would punish those who strayed from campus orthodoxy. That President Eisgruber vilified Dr. Katz for his words and that an official university website places his essay in a context of minstrel shows is surely a signal to students and faculty that there are severe consequences for challenging campus shibboleths. Civil discourse beyond the anodyne will take more than wishful presidential assertions.

In his powerful concurrence in the 1927 Whitney vs. California decision, Justice Louis Brandeis argued: “Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties . . . They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; . . . that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty.” It would be the worst of ironies for universities to fail to be the cradle of citizens who would take up the duty of discussion and debate.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

Discover More