By Doug Ward

Add another lock to the ivory tower.

A majority of college students say it is acceptable to shout down a speaker they disagree with, and 20 percent accept the idea of resorting to violence to keep an undesirable speaker from campus, a poll from the Brookings Institution finds.

John Villasenor, a senior fellow at Brookings, conducted the poll to gauge students’ understanding of the First Amendment. The survey contained responses from 1,500 students in 49 states and the District of Columbia. It has a margin of error of 2 to 6 percentage points.

elements of bill of rights on a tablet screen
The Blue Diamond Gallery

The results are disturbing, although not surprising given the recent campus reactions to controversial speakers:

  • More than 40 percent of students say that the First Amendment does not protect hate speech. (It does.) Women (49 percent) are considerably more likely than men (38 percent) to believe that.
  • Male students (57 percent) are considerably more likely than female students (47 percent) to say that shouting down a speaker is acceptable. Democrats (62 percent) are far more likely than Republicans (39 percent) to agree.
  • Men (30 percent) are more likely than women (10 percent) to say that violence is acceptable to keep a speaker away from campus.
  • Nearly two-thirds of students say that the First Amendment requires that a campus provide an opposing view to a controversial speaker. (It doesn’t.)
  • A majority of students (53 percent) say they would prefer a campus environment that prohibits offensive viewpoints to one that exposes them to many different viewpoints, including offensive ones. Democrats (61 percent) are more likely than Republicans (49 percent) to choose the prohibitive environment.

Villasenor issues a pessimistic assessment of the results.

“Freedom of expression is deeply imperiled on U.S. campuses,” he wrote.

Bret Stephens, a New York Times columnist, sees this as part of a fraying of liberal education, which he says isn’t vigorously promoting the idea of discussion and dissent to hone thinking.

“Our disagreements may frequently hoarsen our voices, but they rarely sharpen our thinking, much less change our minds,” he said in a recent speech.

Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, sees this lack of willingness to engage with opposing viewpoints as part of a “rise of identity consciousness.” A movement that started in the 1980s has led to a “pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition that is now cultivated in our colleges and universities,” he writes.

Lilla says this approach has been helpful in improving inclusiveness on campuses and on exploring ideas of neglected groups. “But it also has encouraged a single-minded fascination with group differences and the social margins,” he says, “so much so that students have come away with a distorted picture of history and of their country in the present — a significant handicap at a time when American liberals need to learn more, not less, about the vast middle of the country.”

Any discussion of how to rekindle the ability to engage in reasoned debate and dissent must include an understanding of the First Amendment. That understanding needs to start in middle school and high school, Villasenor argues. At colleges and universities, he said, professors and administrators need to do a better job of creating an environment that values free and open speech. He was pessimistic about that, though, saying he thought faculty responses to his survey would probably be similar to students’.

Students’ ignorance of the First Amendment not only diminishes an open airing of ideas, he said, but foreshadows changes in society as students’ understanding of free speech will “inform the decisions they make as they move into positions of increasing authority later in their careers.”

In other words, we need to help students learn to listen to many views and embrace disagreement as a natural process of improving themselves and society. It we don’t, they will find that an ivory tower isn’t just a place of safety. It can easily become a place of intellectual imprisonment.

Budget cuts and the imperilment of public universities

State budget cuts and reductions in federal funding have clouded the future of public research universities, especially those in the Midwest, Jon Marcus writes in Washington Monthly.

Not only have university budgets become shaky, he says, but many faculty members have left Midwestern universities for better jobs, public research universities in the Midwest have fallen in national rankings, and spending on research and development has fallen. These universities are “experiencing a pattern of relative decline,” Marcus writes. (He uses a definition of “Midwest” that encompasses Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin.)

He cites some startling statistics that put his premise into context:

“The endowments of the universities of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois and Ohio State, which together enroll nearly 190,000 students, add up to about $11 billion—less than a third of Harvard’s $37.6 billion. Together, Harvard, MIT, and Stanford, which enroll about 50,000 students combined, have more than $73 billion in the bank to help during lean times.”

Additionally, a decline in federal research spending comes at a time when other countries have put additional money into research activities at their universities.

“This ominous reality could widen economic inequality,” he says, in part because students with higher degrees who stay in a state after receiving their degrees bolster that state’s economy. It could also threaten communities in which universities are the primary employer and ultimately threaten the national economy, he says.

The tone of the article seems overly alarmist at times, but the financial challenges at public research universities is very real.

“These schools are desperately needed to diversify economies that rely disproportionately on manufacturing and agriculture and lack the wealthy private institutions that fuel the knowledge industries found in Silicon Valley or along Boston’s 128/I-95 corridor,” he says.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

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