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New Data Suggests Campus Climate May Be Getting Chillier

Heterodox Academy aims to change that.

Regardless of whether there is a campus free speech “crisis,” students’ willingness to accept censorship of views they deem offensive is alarmingly high and, many argue, is headed in the wrong direction. According to the Knight Foundation, in 2016, although 78 percent of students agreed that colleges should expose students to all types of speech and viewpoints, 69 percent also said that colleges should be able to enact policies against language that is “intentionally offensive to certain groups.” In 2017, that number rose to 73 percent and the percentage of students who agreed that colleges should expose students to all types of speech and viewpoints dropped to 70 percent. In surveys conducted at FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, where I serve as Senior Scholar in Human Development and Psychology), 58 percent of students in 2017 agreed that “it is important to be part of a campus community where I am not exposed to intolerant or offensive ideas” (emphasis added). In 2018, an even higher proportion of students (64 percent) favored this kind of campus climate.

While on the one hand this may seem shocking to certain people, it is also unsurprising given that by 2017, 30 percent of students in the Knight Foundation poll agreed that colleges should even be able to restrict expressing potentially offensive political views. Also unsurprising, the proportion of students who said that the climate on campus “prevents some people from saying what they believe because others might find it offensive” rose from 54 percent in 2016 to 61 percent in 2017 to 68 percent in 2018.

Findings from the most recent Knight Foundation survey indicate to some observers that the climate on campus continues to be chilling. An alarmingly low proportion of students surveyed—only 58 percent—say that “hate speech” should continue to be protected by the First Amendment, and more than half of students surveyed (51 percent up from 37 percent one year ago) agree that it is at least “sometimes acceptable” to “[shout] down speakers or [try] to prevent them from talking.” Even the proportion of students who say that using violence is acceptable has gone up from 10 percent to 16 percent. In the view of some, as Middlebury student Rae Aaron told CBS News Sunday Morning, activism on campus is no longer about protesting speakers’ ideas; it is about protesting the right to share certain ideas.

In a 2017 CATO Institute survey of Americans, 43 percent said that defending freedom of speech for racist ideas is as bad as having racist ideas. For those who self-identify as Democrats, the number jumped to more than half. Given these statistics, former ACLU president Nadine Strossen, author of HATE: Why We Should Resist It With Free Speech, Not Censorship, theorized at last year’s inaugural Heterodox Academy conference that the fear of being labeled a racist for defending freedom of speech has led to a real “silent majority.” Although the majority of students and faculty might not agree with various censorious campus practices and policies, fear of retribution leads to self-censoring—something Williams College professor Luana Maroja argues is “harming the very people it aims to protect.”

Viewpoint diversity on campus would, in theory, allow people to express themselves without fear of retribution, it may also provide the intellectual environment in which students and professors can discuss what Maroja, an evolutionary biologist, calls “science that some find unsettling.” Hence, the need for Heterodox Academy (HxA), a politically diverse group of more than 3,000 professors, administrators, and graduate students who have come together to improve the quality of research and education in universities by increasing open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement.

Last year, HxA held its inaugural conference, at which social psychologist Jon Haidt, a founder of HxA along with Greg Lukianoff, co-author of their book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, spoke about themes including the necessity of intellectual discomfort in higher education. A diverse array of thinkers including Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, Yale philosopher Jason Stanley, and others discussed viewpoint diversity and open inquiry in the academy. McWhorter argued for parallels between current student activism and fundamentalist religion, including the relentless hunt for heretics and the coming of Judgment Day—that mythical time when we will “come to terms with racism.” Stanley reminded attendees that John Stuart Mill is not Jesus Christ.

 © Heterodox Academy 2018, used with permission
University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer accepts 2018 HxA award
Source: © Heterodox Academy 2018, used with permission

As 2018 HxA speaker Heather Heying argued, in order to heal divisions, we need a paradigm shift, and when everyone shares the same view, paradigm shifts can’t happen. But there are glimmers of hope. The new OpenMind Platform, incubated at HxA, is being tested to positive reviews. A psychology-based, interactive, online program, the Open Mind Platform is designed to depolarize communities and foster mutual understanding across differences—a primary goal and benefit of viewpoint diversity. And there are college presidents, students, and professors who have the courage to insist on a campus environment that “fosters sustained open discourse,” as is the case at the University of Chicago, a longstanding leader in promoting freedom of expression. Robert Zimmer, the president of the university, spoke at the conference and accepted the inaugural award for institutional excellence. Several other conference speakers received awards for their leadership, scholarship, and courage, and three awards went to students. Recent Notre Dame graduate Roge Karma accepted the award for outstanding student group on behalf of BridgeUSA, the campus group he co-founded, which is committed to “ideological diversity,” “constructive and responsible discourse,” and “a solution-oriented political culture.” Inaugural outstanding student awards went to Canadian graduate student Lindsay Shepherd (who has now completed her degree) and recent Williams College graduate Zach Wood.

As a student, Wood clashed with Adam Falk, then-president of Williams, over “Uncomfortable Learning,” the student group Wood headed, which intentionally brought to campus speakers whose ideas were associated with discomfort for many members of the campus community. Recently, when Williams’ student government meeting minutes were made public after the “college council” denied official recognition to a pro-Israel student group (for being, well, pro-Israel), it was revealed that the college council had only agreed to officially recognize Wood’s group in order to prevent the group from receiving outside funding, and to “have the ability to control what speakers they brought to campus… [so] they could no longer bring speakers to campus that hurt students.”

On June 20-21, 2019, the second Heterodox Academy Annual Conference will convene in New York City, with more sessions, more perspectives from a more diverse range of people, more time for attendees to connect with speakers and other attendees, and more awards. Columbia University undergraduate Coleman Hughes will receive the award for Outstanding Student. The Linn-Benton Community College Civil Discourse Club will receive the award for Outstanding Student Group. Claremont McKenna College will receive the award for Institutional Excellence. Penn Professor Jonathan Zimmerman will receive the award for Leadership. Princeton Professor Keith Whittington, author of Speak Freely, will receive the award for Outstanding Scholarship, and Sarah Lawrence Professor Sam Abrams, who has written about viewpoint diversity and has been the target of attacks by student activists, will receive the award for Courage.

If you are a student, faculty member, or administrator at a university and are concerned about the state of discourse in higher education, find me at the Heterodox Academy Conference. I’d like to hear your story.

Pamela Paresky's opinions are her own and should not be considered official positions of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or any other organization with which she is affiliated.


Stevens, S. (2018). The Skeptics are Wrong Part 1: Attitudes About Free Speech On Campus are Changing. Heterodox Academy

Stevens, S. (2018) The Skeptics Are Wrong Part 2: Speech Culture on Campus is Changing. Heterodox Academy

*The 2017 Knight Foundation First Amendment Survey found that only 35% of students said hate speech should be protected. However, in the 2017 survey, students were not first informed that hate speech is already protected, while in the most recent survey, they were asked if hate speech should continue to be protected. This might account for the large increase.


Knight Foundation/Gallup (2016). Free Expression on Campus: A Survey of U.S. College Students and U.S. Adults.

Knight Foundation/Gallup (2017). First Amendment Survey.

FIRE (2017). Student Attitudes Free Speech Survey.

Knight Foundation (2019). Free Expression on College Campuses.

Cato Institute (2017). The State of Free Speech and Tolerance in America.

** Full disclosure: Pamela Paresky served as chief researcher and in-house editor for The Coddling of the American Mind, and received her PhD in Human Development and Psychology from the University of Chicago.

A war of words on college campuses (2018) CBS News Sunday Morning.

Maroja, L. (2019) Self-censorship on Campus Is Bad for Science. The Atlantic