The Demise of Free Expression and Academic Freedom on College Campuses

Universities are supposed to be places where you are exposed to a broad array of ideas, philosophies, and opinions.

They should be institutions that allow students and faculty alike to engage with distinguished thinkers, scholars, researchers, scientists, innovators, business trailblazers, and even political leaders of all stripes.

That’s what they are supposed to be. Sadly, very few these days are. And that’s not just me talking.

A new survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) of almost 1,500 college faculty members across the country reveals that professors—like the very undergraduates that they teach—are afraid to express their opinions on a broad array of subjects.

The survey found that faculty regularly avoid certain topics and research questions in order to steer clear of student pushback and aggressive diversity administrators.  Professors routinely worry about their careers being cut short as a consequence of expressing “unpopular” or conservative views.

In other words, they are afraid of being “canceled” by the woke mob of students and faculty that have seized control of our institutions of higher learning.

This is not news to me. For example, as a former professor and dean at the University of Illinois, I personally witnessed the chilling effect that primarily conservative viewpoints can have on a junior faculty member’s career path to tenure.

      The University of Illinois Campus

Maybe a little background on just what a university is and what it should be is required here.

According to the dictionary, the word university is derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which roughly means “community of teachers and scholars.”

At the core of a university’s existence is academic freedom, a concept that dates back to Italy’s University of Bologna around 1155 and a charter called the Constitutio Habita which outlined the principle of academic freedom.

It’s important to remember that in the 12th century, scholars could be hanged, drawn, and quartered for expressing ideas that were anathema to the ruling elite.

Mercifully, today, university professors and scholars who express controversial ideas are spared such a pitiless and sadistic end.

Instead, their fate in modern-day America is plausibly worse. They are canceled, dismissed, and possibly expelled from the company of their more politically pragmatic and politically cautious peers.

All of which is anathema to the very reason for a university’s existence. The ability to pursue truth in research and teaching is foundational to the mission of higher education. However, according to the FIRE survey, significant numbers of faculty censor themselves because of professional and personal fear.

Some students, especially those with conservative views, say their classroom experience is little more than an indoctrination of leftist or liberal ideas rather than an education. They add that conservative professors are often afraid to express their views in classes brimming with leftist students.

“It is truly dispiriting to watch historically venerated schools with the word “truth” in their mottos morph into extreme places where faculty limit their expression out of fear,” the survey said.

The FIRE data show that geography matters. “Schools in New England—the nation’s oldest region—suffer from the greatest illiberalism and spawn so many liberal thinkers,” the survey reported.

The survey revealed that faculty ideology immediately exposes some powerful geographic differences. While no region has many conservative professors, 61 percent of faculty in the Middle Atlantic states are either liberal or progressive, as are over two-thirds (68 percent) of New England professors.

Colleges in the south or the west are less likely to be populated with as many left-wing or progressive professors and administrators, the Survey said.

“As such, faculty may want to consider southern or western schools when planning their careers, for they may be able to think and teach more freely in these warmer—both spatially and intellectually—climates,” the survey added.

The survey reported that when it comes to attitudes toward open expression and tolerance for political diversity, New England professors, again, are the most problematic. Consider support for Donald Trump, who continues to be a polarizing figure in American politics. When professors were asked how comfortable they would be with expressing support for Trump, the variance was significant.

Meeting of the doctorate at the University of Paris ca 1500

In New England, three-quarters (76 percent) of faculty admit that it would be impossible to talk about supporting Trump in 2024. In contrast, in the East South Central region, the figure is 38 percent. Too many professors are silencing themselves.

When asked about self-censorship on campus, in localized settings such as official meetings or offices of administrators, faculty, or student groups, three-quarters (74 percent) of New England faculty report that they are likely, very likely, or extremely likely to limit their views, despite being almost entirely progressive to start.

This is not surprising given the fact that the New England region is the primary home of the nation’s eight liberal and privately operated Ivy League schools.

According to the survey, a majority of faculty worry about losing their jobs or reputations because someone misrepresents their words. One-third self-censor out of concern over the responses of staff, students, or administrators. Moreover, a significant portion of faculty support punishing their colleagues in softer ways that can chill expression.

These restrictions include formally condemning certain views but not punishing someone for expressing them, investigating colleagues for controversial expression, and applying social and professional pressure to get colleagues to take mandatory training they philosophically oppose.

The academic freedom glass is, at best, half full.

Key findings include:

  1. Roughly three-in-five faculty (61%) surveyed said that “a university professor should be free to express any of their ideas or convictions on any subject,” and more than half (52%) said speech should only be restricted “where words are certain to incite physical violence.”
  2. On average, 81% of faculty supported allowing four different hypothetical controversial speakers on campus, compared to 48% of the students who were asked about the same speakers in FIRE’s “College Free Speech Rankings survey” (CFSR).
  3. More than half of faculty (55%) said students shouting down a speaker is never acceptable. Four in five said this about students blocking entry into a campus speech, and 92% said this about students using violence to stop a campus speech. In FIRE’s CFSR, the percentages of students who say these actions are never acceptable are 38%, 63%, and 80%, respectively.
  4. Roughly one-in-10 (11%) faculty reported being disciplined or threatened with discipline because of their teaching, while 4% reported facing these consequences for their research, academic talks, or non-academic publications.
  5. Liberal and conservative faculty have starkly different views on mandatory diversity statements for job applicants, the value of political diversity on campus, and when freedom of speech should be restricted. They also have very different social and professional experiences on campus.
  6. Faculty are split evenly on whether diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements are a justifiable requirement for a university job (50%) or are an ideological litmus test that violates academic freedom (50%). Three-in-four liberal faculty support mandatory diversity statements, while 90% of conservative faculty and 56% of moderate faculty see them as political litmus tests.
  7. More than half of faculty (52%) reported being worried about losing their jobs or reputation because someone misunderstands something they have said or done, takes it out of context, or posts something from their past online. Almost three-quarters of conservative faculty (72%), 56% of moderate faculty, and 40% of liberal faculty reported feeling this way.
  8. A significant portion of faculty (ranging from 18% to 36%) endorsed their college’s administration launching a formal investigation into other faculty members for their controversial expression.
  9. Roughly one-third (34%) of faculty said they often feel they cannot express their opinions on a subject because of how students, colleagues, or the administration would respond, compared to one-fifth of students surveyed.
  10. The percentages of faculty who said they were very or extremely likely to self-censor in different contexts ranged from 25% (in academic publications) to 45% (on social media). Only 8% of all faculty said they do not self-censor in any of the four contexts asked about.

In short, the advent of speech codes, campus safe spaces, a reluctance to invite controversial speakers, classroom indoctrination, and a generally suppressive environment when it comes to open discussions of provocative topics are all contrary to the reason universities exist.

Someone once said that the purpose of education is to replace a closed mind with an open one.

In today’s universities, it appears the goal is just the opposite.


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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 Demise of Free Expression and Academic Freedom on College Campuses”

  1. Ron…
    Excellent set of insights…
    I discovered your website by accident – much to my delight…
    My two brothers and I have been professors for more than 35 years and we have witnessed the “decline and fall” of the American university system as it drifted into its current state of demise. All three of us were fortunate to have experienced a classical undergraduate curriculum wherein we had no electives and everyone had a mandatory minor in classics-thoeology-philosophy instituted by Mortimer Adler in the 1940s – The original Great Books orientation. Almost every class was a seminar format wherein dialogue, debate, and rhetoric were esteemed!
    I am now a subscriber to your site and am looking forward to reading your essays, etc.
    Thanks for your insights.
    Steve #51
    Our conversations about university life are always interesting and entertaining… (One of my brothers was, many years ago, a Department Chair at Illinois State University… as he says, a “Normal” life!

    • Thank you for your comments, Steve. I, too, received a classic education as an undergraduate at my alma mater, the University of Kansas. One of the requirements for graduation was a six-hour reading and discussion class called “Western Civilization.” In it, we were given readings from Calvin, Montesquieu, and Cellini, Isaac Newton, Hobbes, Locke, Hitler, Mussolini, and Bertrand Russell. After four semesters of discussion and readings, you took a three-hour exam consisting mostly of several essay questions that tested your grasp of the ideas and concepts you should have learned. It was one of the best, most enlightening classes I had, and I think God that it was a requirement for graduation. That class was scrapped back in the 1980s, so now we have thousands of graduates without the slightest idea of how important the foundations of Western Civilization are to us. From what I have seen Western Civ classes have been dropped by a majority of universities today–a fact I find very sad.


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