The University of Chicago placed first in the third annual College Free Speech Rankings from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), whose mission is to “defend and sustain the individual rights of all Americans to free speech and free thought.” To prepare its rankings, FIRE conducted with College Pulse the largest survey ever of free speech on campus, encompassing almost 45,000 students across 200 colleges.
UChicago also ranked first in two individual categories: “administrative support,” which measured “student perception of their college’s support for free speech,” and “tolerance for speakers,” which measured “tolerance for allowing controversial speakers, liberal and conservative, on campus.” Recent UChicago speakers include former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former President Barack Obama.
Notably, UChicago—America’s sixth-best university—was the only non-state school to make the top five, which Kansas State University, Purdue University, Mississippi State University, and Oklahoma State University rounded out.
The sole member of the Ivy League to crack FIRE’s top half was Dartmouth College at 83rd. The University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University ranked second-last and last, respectively. FIRE characterizes Penn’s speech climate as “very poor,” and at Columbia, the state of free speech is “abysmal.”
UChicago has long been associated with heterodox thought. The hallowed halls of its renowned economics department have seen intellectual titans like Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, Frank Knight, and Art Laffer, all of whom made names for themselves by going against the grain.
In 2014, UChicago’s Committee on Freedom of Expression codified the principles that have made the school so special. The committee’s statement—which aimed to articulate “the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of the University’s community”—integrated former UChicago President Hanna Holborn Gray’s dictum that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is to make them think.”
Purdue University, which placed third in FIRE’s rankings, adopted the “Chicago Principles” in 2015 under the guidance of its president, former Governor Mitch Daniels (R., Indiana).
Despite UChicago’s first-place finish, some are concerned that it is moving away from the principles it once embraced so strongly. It required that students agree with COVID-related ideological statements as a prerequisite for matriculation, limited English graduate programs to only students interested in “Black studies,” and established the Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity, which takes as given contested tenets of critical race theory. The likes of Yeonmi Park and Jordan Peterson have called out UChicago’s recent conduct.
For the time being, UChicago holds the title as the university most supportive of free speech and free thought. Whether it will retain its title for much longer is another question.
University speech policy is often two-tiered where student expression is treated to one version, while faculty expression exists within the academy culture of “academic freedom.” In both cases certain problems arise. For students, it is somewhat more nuanced (https://chicagomaroon.com/27522/viewpoints/letter/chicago-principles-dissent/), while academic freedom is generally an under-managed indulgence that can result in counterproductive faculty behavior (https://www.mindingthecampus.org/2022/08/30/how-law-professors-undermine-the-law/). UChicago indeed has a strong institutional history of intellectual dissent, which now appears weighted in non-faculty initiative (The Chronicle of Higher Education: https://archive.ph/5NBBn). Regards, ’96, Booth MBA