The Death of Free Speech in American Universities

If you have read my blog you know that most of my life—27 years of it to be exact—was spent as a reporter, foreign correspondent, and editor with the Chicago Tribune.

But for another 13 years, after leaving the Tribune, I was a professor, department head, and dean at the University of Illinois.

Being an administrator at one of the top ten public universities in America was an eye-opening experience.

For that reason, I think I’m entitled to weigh in on one of the major topics of conversation about the state of this nation’s universities and colleges: namely the failure of higher education to provide students with unfettered access to ALL ideas, opinions, and philosophies—not just those that emanate from the left.

                             University of Illinois Main Campus

Sadly, at most of America’s institutions of higher learning, that is not the case.

Quite the contrary. There is a demonstrable dearth of conservative viewpoints on a majority of college campuses.

I saw it as a professor in the classroom and again as one of 16 college deans at the University of Illinois.

Here’s just one example from many that I experienced as a dean. One afternoon several faculty members and I were in a meeting to discuss an upcoming symposium on news media ownership that my college was going to sponsor. The discussion was about who to invite and I took note as a list of potential speakers and participants was debated.

As I listened it occurred to me that everybody discussed was not only on the left but clearly opposed to the news media’s existing corporate structure.

“Shouldn’t we invite some folks from the other side of this issue?” I asked.

“Why?” one of the media studies professors asked. “They don’t think like we do about this issue.”

“Precisely,” I responded. “They have a different viewpoint. Shouldn’t our students be exposed to it?”

There was some reluctant discussion about my unanticipated observation and it was decided to invite one or two people who represented “big media.”

As it turned out, all sides of the issue were discussed and debated during the symposium, and students and other attendees were treated to a broad array of opinions about the state of the media in America.

Before some of you conclude that I am only concerned with the absence of conservative mindsets on campus, let me be clear. I believe ALL theories, opinions, thoughts, and ideas should be available to ALL students on college campuses. That includes those ideas that emanate from the left, the right, and the tenuous middle of the political/social spectrum.

I have always believed that universities should be places where students and faculty are exposed to a broad array of beliefs, concepts, and hypotheses. They should be places that encourage rational debate; where ideas are examined and deliberated; where opinions are discussed, questioned, and pondered.

Instead, many of our universities have abandoned that traditional role and seem intent in quashing debate and discussion of any opinion that runs counter to the widely held leftist orthodoxy that permeates today’s campus and the classroom.

One problem I see is the fact that the political disposition of professors and administrators at universities is skewed significantly to the left. This is not just my opinion—though it was clearly obvious to me during my 13 years on the University of Illinois campus.

According to a recent survey by the Carnegie Commission on Higher education, just one in four professors in 1969 identified as conservative. By 1999, that number was down to 12 percent. Today, it’s rare to find any professors willing to identify as conservative at most universities, particularly in the humanities.

Other studies generally agree that conservatives make up less than five percent of historians, sociologists, and literature professors at American colleges and universities.

At the nation’s elite universities, the figures are even more glaring. One study from 2019 found that 40 percent of the 66 top-rated liberal arts colleges in the country lacked even one conservative professor on staff. Another study by the Center for the Study of Popular Culture found that at Brown University, the ratio of registered Democrats to registered Republicans among faculty was thirty to one.

A 2021 survey of Harvard professors found that just 2.9 percent identified as “somewhat” or “very” conservative.

It’s not just that universities aren’t hiring conservatives—they’re actively suppressing speech by conservative students and staff. A 2020 survey of 20,000 students from 55 colleges found that 72 percent of conservatives fear disparagement and censure if they speak their minds.

Just as troubling is the fact that scores of universities have canceled events featuring conservative speakers, citing “safety concerns.” In some cases, campus police have physically prevented conservatives from taking the stage and if they are able to get to the stage, they are shouted down and threatened by leftist students and professors.

Another 2021 study from the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology revealed that one in three conservative graduate students and faculty had been threatened with disciplinary action for expressing their views.

This is not the kind of unrestricted and freethinking learning environment that most parents expect their offspring to encounter on college campuses—not when they are spending several thousands of dollars each year on tuition, books, room, and board.

Just last week at Yale University’s prestigious Law School, more than 100 law students derailed a bipartisan panel on free speech and civil liberties by shouting down and intimidating the speakers, who eventually needed police to escort them out of the building.

The Yale law school’s Federalist Society hosted the panel, which featured Monica Miller, of the progressive American Humanist Association, and Kristen Waggoner, of the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). A member of the Federalist Society said the panel was trying to demonstrate that a liberal atheist and a Christian conservative could agree on issues of free speech.

                   Yale University Law School

After the raucous event, Judge Laurence Silberman of the Washington D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals urged colleagues to consider whether Yale University students who shouted down speakers on campus should be barred from clerkships with federal appellate court justices—a critical component in any law student’s academic career.

“The latest events at Yale Law School, in which students attempted to shout down speakers participating in a panel discussion on free speech, prompt me to suggest that students who are identified as those willing to disrupt any such panel discussion should be noted,” Silberman wrote in the email.

“All federal judges—and all federal judges are presumably committed to free speech—should carefully consider whether any student so identified should be disqualified from potential clerkships,” Silberman added.

When law students from one of the most prestigious law schools in the nation indicate they are opposed to freedom of speech, I worry about the future of the First Amendment and the five freedoms it guarantees—religion, speech, press, assembly, and the right to petition.

As an emeritus professor and dean, I am appalled that American universities have been willing to abandon the ideals of higher education in favor of a suffocating socio-political monoculture that is focused on creating more adherents to the Left’s woke ideology.

This toxic environment has given rise to fallacious pseudo-academic curricula such as Critical Race Theory that promote the politics of hatred and division, which are contradictory to any free society and specifically to the founding principles of America.

Universities and colleges should be places where a range of perspectives and ideas are debated and tested so graduates can go out and implement them to foster a better world.

Instead, the goal seems to be to indoctrinate students as left-wing voters and activists, rather than producing free and independent thinkers who will preserve and carry forth our cultural traditions.

In short, universities and colleges are failing our students and our nation. For hundreds of years, they were among the chief custodians of Western thought and culture. But today students are taught WHAT, rather than HOW to think.

Faculty lounges have become nothing more than echo chambers in which professors bounce putative ideas off each other and then force-feed those ideas to gullible students in the classroom.

Meanwhile, too many campuses continue to interdict open and free discussion of political and social ideas and opinions that conflict with entrenched and “correct” leftist orthodoxy.

I wish I could say that this aberration on college campuses will soon end.

Regrettably, I can’t.










About Ronald E. Yates

Ronald E. Yates is an award-winning author of historical fiction and action/adventure novels, including the popular and highly-acclaimed Finding Billy Battles trilogy. Read More About Ron Here

2 thoughts on “The Death of Free Speech in American Universities”

  1. How ironic that the advocates of diversity in (almost) all areas of life advocate so vehemently against diversity of opinion. My pet theory is that the left seized control of American campuses because Congress granted military draft deferments to college students. As a result, anti-military leftists became career students, eventually taking over academia. (They also failed to understand the meaning of “deferment,” apparently thinking it meant “permanent exemption.”) As for the Yale law student who refused to listen to both sides of a discussion of free speech, do they not understand. the concept of the positions to which they aspire? What kind of attorneys will they make—lawyers who will not support the presentation of both sides of a case in court and judges who will not listen to both sides of the cases before them?

  2. Ron. You are articulate and always well researched, logical, and articulate in your statements and observations. I am just a dirt forester of “the old school” who believes in managing the resources we have for maximum benefit to everyone. I would be an outcast in today’s world…..and am proud of that!


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