Ivies Fare Poorly in College Free Speech Rankings

Many students at universities seemingly committed to the free exchange of ideas don't feel comfortable speaking their minds.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on October 4, 2023
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  • A new report ranks colleges based on campus free speech.
  • Several Ivy League schools perform poorly, with Harvard ranked last.
  • Survey results reveal student perceptions of campus tolerance and openness to conversations on controversial issues.
  • Difficult topics include abortion, gun control, racial inequality, and transgender rights.

Ivy League schools dominate most college rankings, but when it comes to free speech on campus, several of the Ancient Eight don't perform so well.

In the newly released 2024 College Free Speech Rankings, produced by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) and College Pulse, four Ivies finish in the bottom 15. Harvard University is dead last, with the lowest possible score, while the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) lands in the penultimate final spot. Yale University and Dartmouth College also garner poor marks.

The highest-ranked Ivy is Brown University, at No. 69.

Last year, Columbia University occupied the bottom spot, and Penn once again came in second to last.

Are students at some of America's top colleges stifled? And how do you measure "free speech" anyway?

How FIRE Assesses Campus Free Speech

Since 2020, FIRE and College Pulse have ranked colleges according to their free speech climate. This latest iteration ranking 248 colleges and universities results from surveys of more than 55,000 students across 254 institutions.

Institutions are assigned a score based on 13 components — six involve student perceptions of their college's free speech climate, while the remaining seven assess "behavior" by administrators, faculty, and students regarding free speech.

Student perceptions address concerns such as comfort expressing ideas on controversial subjects, tolerance for liberal and conservative speakers, appetite for "disruptive conduct" such as protesting or interrupting speakers, and openness to conversations on controversial issues such as abortion, gun control, and racial inequality.

Among the key findings:

  • More than a quarter of students (26%) said they feel pressure to avoid discussing controversial topics in class.
  • Twenty percent say they often self-censor.
  • A quarter said they are more likely to self-censor now than when they first started college.
  • Almost half (45%) said that students blocking other students from attending a speech is acceptable, while 27% said using violence to stop a campus speech is acceptable.
  • And more than 1 in 5 students said their college administration's stance on free speech is unclear.

Among specific topics, abortion ranks as the most difficult topic to discuss, with almost half (49%) citing it. Additional thorny topics include gun control (43%), racial inequality (42%), and transgender rights (42%). Abortion has topped the list every year the survey has been conducted.

Interestingly, the percentage of students naming affirmative action as difficult to discuss has declined each year since 2020, reaching a low of 23% in this latest survey. The recent Supreme Court case involving Harvard and the University of North Carolina thrust affirmative action into the national spotlight, which could have made campus conversations on the topic this year more acceptable and necessary.

Digging into the data reveals that schools at the top and those at the bottom don't differ significantly on several measures. For example, in the category of "Comfort Expressing Ideas," the top five schools scored an average of 19.82, while the bottom five scored 19.89. Likewise, for "Openness," schools in the top five averaged 14.23, and those in the bottom five averaged 14.38.

Key factors differentiating top schools from bottom ones, the report notes, are scores on "Tolerance Difference" and "Disruptive Conduct." Students from lower-ranked schools strongly favored controversial liberal speakers over conservative ones and supported the use of disruptive, even violent, forms of protest to prevent a campus speech.

In fact, bottom-ranked schools were far more likely to engage in what the report terms "deplatforming," or organized efforts to disinvite speakers. Schools ranked at the bottom had an 81% success rate in this regard. Naturally, some colleges, because of their reputation or location, are more apt to attract such speakers in the first place, allowing for more opportunities to deplatform.

You might expect Harvard to be among such schools. From 2019-2023, Harvard had nine deplatforming attempts, the exact total of this year's top five schools combined. Georgetown University, also ranked toward the bottom, had the most, with 10.

Individual College Free Speech Rankings

With respect to the institutional rankings themselves, here are the five colleges receiving the highest campus climate scores:

  1. Michigan Technological University (78.01)
  2. Auburn University (72.53)
  3. University of New Hampshire (72.17)
  4. Oregon State University (71.56)
  5. Florida State University (69.64)

The first four received ratings of "good," while Florida State was deemed "above average."

And here are the bottom five:

  1. Fordham University (21.72)
  2. Georgetown University (17.45)
  3. University of South Carolina (12.24)
  4. University of Pennsylvania (11.13)
  5. Harvard University (0.00)

Fordham received a rating of "poor," and the next three were labeled "very poor." Harvard, in a class by itself, was called "abysmal."

Since 2020, colleges consistently scoring high on these rankings include the University of Chicago, the University of New Hampshire, Florida State, Kansas State University, and Oregon State. Those most often landing toward the bottom are Boston College, Fordham University, Georgetown, Grinnell College, Harvard, Marquette University, and Middlebury College.

For this year, the report notes Harvard's score is "generous." Its actual score is -10.69, more than six standard deviations below the average. So it rounds up to zero to save the university face.

Unpacking Harvard's 'Abysmal' Rating

Since the inception of FIRE's rankings, Harvard has consistently finished below 75% of the schools surveyed. For the 2024 edition, it received the lowest score ever recorded, completing what FIRE calls the university's "downward spiral."

The report attributes Harvard's poor performance largely to its deplatforming campaigns, but that's not the only measure on which it suffers. Harvard also finished last in the "Comfort Expressing Ideas" category. More than half (53%) claimed they self-censor at least once or twice a month, and only about a quarter reported they are comfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor on a controversial political topic.

Said one member of the class of 2025: "Political views, certain views, are frowned upon by another political group, therefore they'll judge you or try to cancel you." Another student noted, "My views on cancel culture are not popular, and most aren't open to conversation about my views."

"Harvard's consistently poor performance over the past four years in FIRE's College Free Speech Rankings reveals a serious problem at one of America's most prestigious institutions," an article on FIRE's website concludes.

The free speech climate at Penn, which scored just above Harvard, isn't much better. Slightly over half (51%) of the students said they self-censor, and 79% said shouting down a campus speaker is acceptable. This from a school where liberal students outnumber conservatives by almost an 8-to-1 ratio.

"I have taken a few political science classes," noted a student in the class of 2025, "and I am worried for my grade when I might want to express an opinion that is different."

Most troubling, perhaps, is the perception among students that these elite universities don't protect free speech on campus. Penn ranks 235th out of 248 institutions in this regard. At Harvard, only a third of students believe their school's administration protects free speech on campus.

For universities built on the ideal of free expression and the unfettered pursuit of knowledge, it's certainly a serious indictment. What can Harvard do to reverse this trend?

"It must consistently walk the walk by enforcing pro-speech policies as well as creating them," FIRE suggests, "by refusing to cave to sanction attempts, and by changing the culture from one of self-censorship and fear to one of self-expression and courageous conversation."